How to Read Dog Body Language

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There may not be a Rosetta Stone program for learning canine body language, but with a few tips and a little common sense, you’ll be deciphering dog-talk like a pro in no time.

I always tell my students that by welcoming a dog into their life, they’re obligated not only to provide food, love, and training, but also to learn the native language of their new family member. As humans, we have thousands of words—as well as body language—we can use to express our feelings. Dogs, on the other hand, have only their body parts to help them paint a clear picture of their emotions. Needless to say, it’s not unusual for misunderstandings to occur. But with a little awareness, you can get a good sense of what your pooch is trying to tell you.

“I don’t want to be touched!”

Here are four telltale signs your pup is feeling antisocial:

Cowering: I know you need to brush your dog and that the groomer says if you don’t do it more often they’ll have to shave him to the skin, but if your dog is cowering, please do not push the issue. Better to take a step back and make a plan to desensitize him to being brushed. That process could take weeks, depending on your dog’s level of discomfort, but trust me, it’s a worthy endeavor. Pushing a frightened dog into doing something he’s fearful of will result in an unfavorable response.

Yawning: If your dog is yawning while you’re having a disagreement with your spouse or yelling at your kids, it doesn’t mean he’s tired or bored. More likely, he’s trying to get rid of some of the stress he’s feeling due to the tension in the household.
 

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Lots of Motion: If you want to take your car-phobic dog for a drive, and he picks up on the “warning signs” when you gather your keys and purse (look who’s reading body language now!), he’ll probably start exhibiting stress signals, like moving away from you, panting heavily, licking his lips, and pacing. These actions all indicate that he’s trying to avoid the situation. A little desensitization and counterconditioning will go a long way here.

Lack of Movement: When a dog is motionless or moving slowly, it could be an indication that he’s very stressed. To get the whole story, look at the rest of the dog’s body: Lip licking, pinning back the ears, and averting the eyes are signs of stress. Freezing is usually a dog’s last-ditch effort to get something to stop. Last week, a student told me she knows her dog loves to be hugged by her child because the dog stays very, very still when it’s happening. After I restarted my heart, I gave her a more accurate translation.

“I’m scared—not hungry!”
 

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To my grandmother’s way of thinking, anyone having a crisis could be soothed with a bowl of pasta. There are a lot of people who feel the same way about their dogs. The other day, I saw a dog acting terrified of a child who was reaching toward him (presumably to pet him). The owner held the dog on a short, tight leash so he couldn’t move away from the child while holding a treat in front of the dog. The dog kept turning his face away, clearly more interested in escaping than eating. Although offering treats can help a dog gain a positive association with an experience, it doesn’t always make the situation less scary.

“I want more, please!”

Not sure if your dog is enjoying the interaction you’re having with him? After a few seconds of petting him, stop and see what happens. Does he move in toward you and nudge your hand? Or does he turn away? Honor his feelings just as you would want someone to honor yours.

As with any relationship, mutual respect and understanding are keys to happiness for your dog. By understanding what your dog is trying to tell you, you’ll be able to predict what he’s likely to do next, which gives you the ability to prevent or manage his behavior.

For more on canine body language, download this complimentary e-book.

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