Dog Body Language

Signs of Anxiety

These signs indicate that your dog is uncomfortable with the current situation and there is a need for intervention to prevent pushing the dog to the point of biting, and to make sure your canine friend is happy and not feeling anxious.

Please remember: It is a GOOD THING that a dog shows you that he is anxious or uncomfortable, rather than going straight to a bite. Never punish a dog for showing that he wants to be left alone by growling, leaving the situation or demonstrating more subtle signs. If you punish a dog for growling or breaking a stay to get way from a child you might suppress the warning or avoidance behavior and he might just bite without warning first the next time. The dog still feels exactly the same way about the child bothering him, but now he has no way to show it and no way out of the situation. Be glad if your dog gives a warning and take steps to modify the behavior of the child, condition the dog to enjoy the child and create safe spaces for both dog and child.

One Paw Raised

This is very cute but the dog is not happy and does not want to be petted or bothered. She is worried.

Anxious Dog with One Paw Raised

Half Moon Eye

The dog just wants to be left alone. Watch for this one when kids are mauling the dog.

Dog with a worried half-moon eye

This is a common expression in dogs that are being hugged. If you see the half moon eye when the kids approach the dog or are interacting with the dog, it’s time to intervene and give them all something else to do.

Displacement Behaviors

Displacement behaviors are normal behaviors displayed out of context. They indicate conflict and anxiety. The dog wants to do something, but he is suppressing the urge to do it. He displaces the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too. He is not sure what will happen next. He wants to jump on you or run out the door, but instead he yawns. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes his bone, but instead he bites furiously at his own foot.

Some examples of displacement behaviors include:

  • Yawning when not tired
  • Licking chops without the presence of food – watch the video below to see why this is important
  • Sudden scratching when not itchy
  • Sudden biting at paws or other body parts
  • Sudden sniffing at the ground or objects
  • Wet-dog shake when not wet or dirty

These are all things that dogs do anyway. It is important to look at the context to determine whether the dog is feeling anxious. For example: if it is bedtime and the dog gets up, stretches, yawns and goes to her bed, then that yawn was not a displacement behavior. If the kids are hugging the dog or lying on him and he yawns or starts licking at them over and over then this is displacement. He wants to get up and leave or even to bite, but he displaces that with yawning or licking them or himself. In this context the licking or yawning behavior tells you that the dog is uncomfortable with whatever the kids are doing and it is time for you to intervene. You must then either prevent the kids from doing this in the future or use positive training techniques to teach the dog to enjoy (not just tolerate) these actions from the kids.

Avoidance Behaviors

Sometimes dogs are more overt when they feel anxious and want to remove themselves from a situation. Please don’t force a dog to stay in situation in which he feels anxious, especially if children are the source of his anxiety. Here are some examples:

  • The dog gets up and leaves an uncomfortable situation (one day, he may bite rather than leave the situation)
  • Turning head away
  • Hiding behind person or object
  • Barking and retreating
  • The dog rolls over on his back in a submissive way (please don’t hurt me!)

Other Body Language Signs of Anxiety

  • Tail between the legs
  • Tail low and only the end is wagging
  • Tail down or straight for curly-tailed dog (husky, chow-chow, malamute, pug, etc.)
  • Ears sideways for erect-eared dog
  • Ears back and rapid panting
  • Dog goes into another room away from you and urinates or defecates (please find a professional behavior consultant to help with this)

All dogs should have a safe place, such as a crate or mat that they can go to when they want to be left alone. All family members and guests should be taught not to bother the dog when he is in his safe place. We have recently heard of a mat product which gives the dog a shock if he tries to leave it, thus teaching him to stay on the mat. This is not what we would consider a safe place for the dog. This is a dangerous product and you should not have one of these.

Watch this video and see if you can spot the warning sign (hint – it happens at about 2 sec into the video). You will likely need to watch it twice. Warning – graphic video. May not be suitable for children. Again this shows us how fast a dog can move. Even with the handler right there he couldn’t stop it. The slow motion shows just how slow the human reaction is. Neither the handler nor the reporter saw the warning sign.

This is a classic example of inter-species miscommunication. The reporter was showing affection for the dog by leaning in and putting both hands on the dog’s neck. The dog did not interpret this as a friendly gesture, but rather saw it as a threat and acted accordingly.

Lesson: keep your face out of the face of a strange dog – emphasize this with your kids!

Signs of an Imminent Bite

If these signs occur, cease all interaction with dog, look away and give dog the opportunity to leave, do not approach, do not make eye contact, do not talk to the dog. If you are touching the dog, stop and move your hands slowly away. If you are taking something from the dog, let go of it. It is better for him to keep it than for you or a child to get bitten. If you are bending over the dog, slowly straighten up and look away.

  • Dog freezes – becomes suddenly stiff
  • Dog stands with front legs splayed, head low, looking at you
  • Dog curls lip to show teeth

Dog Snarling and Showing Teeth

A good guide for children is that if the dog is all soft and wiggly, then he is not likely to bite. If a dog is stiff like a statue then he is dangerous.

Teach children never to take from a dog and if a dog steals from them to let the dog have it. They should ask an adult to get the item back. Trade the dog for a treat to get the item back, or just let him keep it. Hire a professional to help you teach the dog that it is good to give things back.

Signs of Arousal

These signs indicate that your dog is interested in something or trying to decide on a course of action and is not receptive to attention (such as petting from a child) and include:

  • Ears forward
  • Mouth closed
  • Eyes intense
  • Body rolled forward
  • Body tense
  • Tail high (may or may not be wagging)
  • Slow deliberate wag

This is the type of posture we see in a dog who wants to chase a squirrel, confront an intruder or is getting ready to chase a ball. He is intensely focused and ready for action. He does not want to be hugged or petted at this time. Teach children to leave a dog along who is tense and focused like this.

Alert and Focused Dog

Signs of a Happy Dog

Signs that indicate that the dog is receptive to attention or wants to play:

  • Panting, relaxed, happy expression
  • Body position relaxed
  • Lying with one paw tucked under
  • Enthusiastic tail wag
  • Tail thumping on floor
  • Play bow (front end down; rear end up; tail wagging)
  • Happy, Panting Dog

*Reprinted courtesy of Doggone Safe

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