Have you ever wondered what your dog was feeling? It can seem a mystery sometimes!
Dogs have a variety of signals to communicate to us and each other how they are feeling, but these can be subtle and often missed. As human guardians we usually understand the obvious signs when our pets are not happy, including barking, lunging, growling, air snapping and actual bites. However, for dogs this is their version of shouting at us. Many more subtle body language signals will have proceeded these 'louder' behaviours.
It is important as good guardians that we read our dogs as best we can, so we can understand their varying coping levels in different environments and social situations, and take action to keep them as happy as possible.
So what does a happy dog look like?
This is a good place to start.
Here are some great photos from www.doggonesafe.com to help...
Can you spot the differences?
A sign of a happy dog is a loose, wiggly body, relaxed posture and tail wag. They will have soft facial and eye expressions. Their mouths and ears will also be relaxed with no tension or alertness.
IMPORTANT - a tail wag is not always an indication of a happy dog. Dog's can wag their tails when they are very stressed! Look to the rest of the body and environment for context.
Fun fact! - Dog's have a tail bias
Dog's will wag their tails more to the right when they are happy and something positive is happening (ie. you return home). They will wag their tail more to the left when something is new, novel or they are not quite sure about something. See here for more information on this: Psychology Today
So what does a stressed dog look like?
For clarity sake I will break these behaviours down into three categories - displacement behaviours, calming signals and stress signals. In realty it is not as clear cut as this, but this is a simple way to show the escalation of stress in dogs.
Here are more photos from doggonsafe.com to show dogs when they are less happy compared to their happier more relaxed selves.
These signals are the lowest level of stress in dogs. Like humans, dogs will display these when they are not quite sure how to behave in a given situation.
- Sniffing the ground
Above is an example of a dog that is unsure of his situation so uses displacement sniffing. You may see your dog do this as another unknown dog approaches them. The reason for this behaviour is that it get's your dog's head down and helps them to engage their nose properly. Now your dog can analyse how safe the environment is around them, or how safe that unknown dog/ person is.
This is comparable to what we do when we see someone with a clipboard who looks like they may ask us for money. Rather than interact with them, we pretend to be ever so busy with our mobile!
- Sitting and scratching the neck
Like us, when tension rises in a dog's body it is often felt in and around the shoulder and neck area. By scratching they relieve some of this tension. For us, it's a bit like fiddling or adjusting your tie before an interview.
Calming/ Appeasement Signals
When displacement behaviours don't quite cut it dogs will display calming signals (AKA appeasement signals). These are done to calm both themselves down, and others around them (both dogs and people). Essentially, these behaviours help dogs to avoid potential aggression or perceived danger.
Fun Fact! - Dogs don't feel guilt!
This very famous video of "guilty" Denver had us all fooled! From a human perspective the avoidant behaviours of the yellow lab may look far more guilty than the seemingly more chilled out 'not guilty' dog. Actually in hindsight the 'not guilty' one is just as likely to have eaten the kittie treats! The 'guilty' behaviours you're seeing are in fact appeasement signals provided to avoid aggression from a currently scary guardian. Dog's are very in-tune with our behaviour and reading our social cues. They do understand our change of body language and tone of voice when we are angry or disappointed. However, they do not understand why their human is directing it towards them. Dogs quickly learn that by providing these signals they can actively change our behaviour and calm us down.
For more information on the science behind why dog's don't feel guilt, see here - article on guilt
I will list just a few common calming signals here:
Yawning, out of context, not when your dog is tired or just waking up, can be a calming signal. Dog's may do this when they are starting to feel stressed or anxious about a situation. Say a stranger comes to pet them, they may yawn to both calm themselves down, but also to indicate for others around them to calm down too. However, dog's can also yawn due to over-excitement or anticipation of something exciting happening, so it's not always a bad thing. It is best, as with all body language to read the rest of the body and the analyse the environment that they are in. The reason for yawning is to increase oxygen intake into the body to prepare for fight or flight. The yawn will often seem in slow motion in action.
- Nose licking
Nose or lip licking can be a calming signal too. By licking over their nose they increase their ability to smell and can take in the environment around them much better.
- Slowing down
When dogs begin to worry about a situation they will slow down their movements. By slowing down they can read a situation better and they can also indicate to another approaching dog/ person that they mean no harm. Some may even lie down to make themselves smaller and less threatening. An impolite dog, or learning pup, will rush up for a nose-to-nose greeting! It is best to keep these greetings short and sweet.
- Turning away/ facing away
When strange dog's approach each other, the politest way to do this would be slowly with nice curved bodies and nose-to-tail greetings. Dog's may even do a little displacement sniffing also. By turning or facing away they offer nice calm signals to each other that they are friendly. However, dog's can also use these behaviours to try and avoid social situations they don't enjoy. For example, for the many dog's that don't enjoy human hugs, you may find that the dog turns their head away from you. Check out Grisha Stewart's five second rule for the best way to handle your dog in a way that they enjoy and they gave consent to.
Here is a video example of dogs using calming signals, and some more obvious 'back off' signals, when meeting each other for the first time. Puppies do need to learn to read calming signals in other dogs, even when they naturally use them themselves.
Stress signals are displayed when dogs are very anxious or fearful, and these should definitely be listened to. If you see your dog starting to look very stressed, it worth taking them out of the situation and encourage them to do some self-soothing behaviours. For dogs this includes: licking, chewing and sniffing. As simple as it sounds, these are natural behaviours that release happy hormones such as dopamine and serotonin.
- Freeze and Whale eye
In this picture above - who do you think is enjoying this?
Whale eye is when you can see the moon crescent shape of the white in a dog's eyes. This is when dogs have slowed down to a freeze, don't move their head, but they are still look at the thing that is worrying them. This is a clear signal that the dog is not happy and needs a break or chance to calm down. As we previously mentioned many dogs do not enjoy hugs, especially from children and strangers (some dogs learn to tolerate them, a few learn to love them - every dog is an individual). The closest thing to a hug between dogs is humping, and obviously that is not considered very polite!
Sadie is providing whale eye in a situation where she is feeling very stressed, and she needs to 'shout' with barking to create the space she needs. NOTE - her tail is still wagging (not a happy wag though!)
- Panting/ sweaty paw pads
Panting out of context (your dog is not hot, or just been exercising) can be a sign that they are feeling increasingly anxious. When stressed a dog's internal body temperature rises. Dogs release heat from their bodies predominantly by panting. However, dogs can also sweat from their paw pads. It's not see easy to see sweaty paw prints, unless you have shiny flooring. Vet tables are one place where you might see this.
Hackling is similar to when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It is caused by piloerection and tends to show up most on dogs that have shorter, stiffer coats. It's much harder to see on fluffy long haired dogs. This physical response is caused by a surge of adrenaline rushing through the body. It can be triggered by fear, aggression, arousal, lack of confidence, anxiety, shock or even just plain over excitement! It is not always a sign of aggression. Sometimes dogs will display hackles while having an excitable play session with each other.
- Trembling/ shaking
Shaking is caused by adrenaline surging through the body, and also cortisol. When dogs are very stressed, anxious or fearful they can tremble or shake. This is not when they are cold. The video below shows a dog really struggling to cope with his situation. It's a good video to show some other avoidance/ appeasement behaviours too - turning away, whale eye, low body and head carriage, front paw lift. These are all signs that this dog needs time and space.
- Shake off
This occurs when your dog is not wet. In the video below, the shake off is used while the dog is highly aroused, but actually just very over excited. A shake off occurs when an excess of adrenaline rushes into the body and the dog shakes off to release some of this build up. In the wise words of Taylor Swift's dogs will just 'shake it off!" This behaviour can occur when dogs are stressed, but also when they are very excited. Occasionally you may see two dogs have an excitable play session together that ends with both dogs shaking off as they move away. It can often indicate a mutual end of play.
Top training tip - Never punish a growl!
This is like taking the batteries out of your fire alarm! Growling is a wonderful piece of information that your dog has given you and should be listened to. Instead of scolding, we should say 'Thank you, I've heard you' and remove both the dog and yourself from the situation or away from the trigger. If we punish these signals, dogs will skip to a stronger reactions to get their message across - they will be forced to shout! Dog bites can happen in 1/40 of a second - it's really not worth the risk!
Maybe we can all learn a little bit from dogs and just....