Dogs use their whole bodies to communicate how they are feeling. Groups of signals indicate whether a dog needs more space from something (distance increasing signals) or would like less space (distance decreasing signals).
Sometimes a dog will display a mix of these signals when they feel conflicted or ambivalent in a situation. Groups of signals can also tell us when a dog is feeling stressed or playful. These behavioral signals can be limited by whether or not the dog has a coat that allows him to raise his hackles or whether he has surgically cropped ears or a docked tail and so forth.
Signals indicating the dog wants an increase in distance from something are often used in response to a threat or a perceived threat of some sort.
They begin with subtle signals such as direct eye contact with eyelids wide open to produce a “stare.” This display alone will often succeed. If it doesn’t, the dog may pull his lips back at the corners and may escalate to a snarl with head held high, ears up. The dog may also make himself appear bigger by shifting his weight, raising the hair along his back, holding the tail high or vertically (Beaver, 1999). A dog standing erect, with his head up and ears up is ready to engage. Direct staring can be threatening as can a stiffly wagging tail, especially when displayed along with an erect posture. (Horowitz, 2009).
Distance-decreasing signals can include the avoidance of direct eye contact, blinking or having the eyes half closed, the lowering of ears and then the head and then the neck (Beaver, 1999).
This needs to be observed in relation to what the rest of the body is displaying to assess and confirm whether the dog is wanting to decrease distance. The signals escalate as the dog sends a stronger message and may include tongue flicking and retraction of the lips (tongue flicking is the movement of the tongue in and out of the mouth and across the muzzle). Sometimes a front paw is raised and the tail held low. The dog may lie down and show its belly (Beaver, 1999).
When a dog is feeling acutely stressed they may show avoidance or defensive aggression or they may hide or look for contact with humans or other animals (avoidance refers to avoiding the behavior that is followed by something that is unpleasant to the animal).
Chronically stressed dogs (such as those who are kept in conditions that restrict their social interactions or their space) show enhanced locomotion, more yawning, paw-lifting and body shaking, low body posture and vocalizing compared to dogs who do not experience the same social or restrictions) (Bodnariu, 2008).
When feeling playful, dogs frequently offer a “play bow” (a pose where the animal crouches down on the forepaws and sticks their hindquarters in the air) during play.
Dogs that are being ignored will try to get the attention of another dog by nipping, pawing, barking, nosing and bumping (Bradshaw J., 2011). The “play-face”, an open mouth gesture, is also a signal to initiate play and to differentiate between play behavior and a serious attack. Gestures like the play bow signal that the inviting dog’s behavior is just meant in fun (Hare & Woods, 2013).
Understanding the signals dogs use to communicate helps us keep dogs comfortable and avoid misunderstandings.
Jane Bowers, B.A., CABC, CPDT-KA
Jane Bowers has been training dogs for over two decades. She teaches people to train their dogs in group and private training courses and has a keen interest in assisting dogs with behavioral issues. Her company is Dogs of Distinction Canine Training Inc. Jane has a monthly newspaper column on dog related topics and is a former host of a live call in TV show on animals. She is a strong advocate for force free and humane training methods for all animals.
Jane has a degree in psychology and is certified as a dog trainer through the Certification Council of Professional Pet Dog Trainers and as a behaviour consultant through the International Association of Behavior Consultants and through the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals. These organizations require a minimum number of continuing education units be obtained to retain certification. She is also a professional member of The Pet Professional Guild, an organization committed to force free training of animals and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. a professional organization of individual trainers who are committed to being better trainers through education.
Jane is the content creator of the online course Assessing and Interpreting Dog Behaviour, which is a course for law enforcement personnel who meet unfamiliar dogs in the course of their duties. She is the author of Perfect Puppy Parenting, a guide to raising a happy, confident, well-behaved dog.
Jane spent 17 years working for Customs Border Services and in joint teams with US Homeland Security and the RCMP. She spent a further 8 years working as an Animal Control Officer and Bylaw Enforcement Officer.
Jane lives on a small farm with dogs, sheep, donkeys, and chickens. The dogs each came from situations that prevented them from living in their original homes. The dogs range in size and age and with the dog training and behavioral work, whether it’s participating in the development of an online training course, working with a client’s dog or tracking a lost pet or animal.