Dog’s Body Language

Dog’s Body Language

We're thrilled to welcome esteemed dog trainer, Kat Stevens-Stanley, to our blog! In honor of January being National Train Your Dog Month, she'll be giving us some of her top tips for training pooches. Without further ado, we will hand it off to Kat. 

We're thrilled to welcome esteemed dog trainer Kat Stevens-Stanley to our blog! In honor of January being National Train Your Dog Month, she'll give us some top tips for training pooches. Without further ado, we will hand it off to Kat. 

Chilling Out: How to read your dog’s body language and take notice of signs of stress

As a dog trainer, one of the most important things I teach humans about is reading and understanding their dog’s body language. Because dogs don’t have a verbal language like humans do, they communicate mainly through the use of body language signals. Some of these signals are quite obvious (like a bite or a growl), but many dog communication signals are more subtle and easy to miss if you don't know how to look for them. As a dog owner, I think it is one of your greatest responsibilities to familiarize yourself with some of these signals. This way, you can be sure your dog feels safe, happy, and comfortable no matter your situation. If you have babies or young children in your home, I cannot stress enough how important this information is to prevent dog bites and injuries.

A happy and relaxed dog will have a very loose, fluid body language. Their mouths may be slightly opened with a tongue hanging to one side or another. Your dog may offer you or another dog a playbow, a position where a dog is down on their front legs while their backside is up in the air. Happy, excited dogs often wag their tails in a circular or helicopter-type motion. Sometimes, you may see their entire backside sway back and forth as their tails wag. A relaxed dog should have a soft look on their face, with eyes that may look squinty.

Tail wags are an important thing to mention. There's an old saying along the lines of, “If a dog's tail is wagging, he must be happy.” Tail wags can vary greatly and can mean a number of things. If your dog’s tail hangs low and wags slowly back and forth, this dog may be on alert or fixated on something. A tail that hangs between the legs can indicate a dog who is nervous or fearful. A tail held high with its end curved, sometimes called a “flagged tail,” usually belongs to a dog who is tense and ready to be on the offense or defense. Breeds and types can definitely impact some of these tail positions. An American Eskimo dog’s tail is often raised and curved as part of its normal look. Some breeds, like the Pembroke Welsh corgi, do not have a tail.

Signs of anxiety, nervousness, and stress are especially important to be aware of. When you are familiar with stress signals, you can modify your dog’s environment to make sure your dog is set up to feel happy and relaxed. Learning is less likely to happen if your dog feels anxious and unsafe, and the potential for damage increases. Many times, when someone says their dog “bit out of the blue,” chances are the dog gave many signals beforehand that it was uncomfortable with what was happening.

Yawning is a very common stress signal. Dogs rarely yawn due to tiredness (think of how many hours your dog naps daily). Dogs do a lot of things with their mouths when stressed. Assuming you haven’t just given your dog a lick of peanut butter, lip licking and tongue flicking are signs of a stressed dog who doesn’t like something happening (maybe being pet by a strange person or child) or becoming very uncomfortable. “Whale Eye” means you can see the whites surrounding your dog’s eyes. If your dog is giving you a whale eye, his head may be turned away from something he is uncomfortable with or would like some distance from. Dogs often turn their head away from another dog, person, or thing they do not want to interact with. Shaking and excessive drooling are also signs to watch for.

Growling can be one of the most obvious signs of dog discomfort. It’s important to respect that if your dog is growling, she is not okay with something that is happening. I consider growling to be a bit of a blessing. If you have a dog who growls, be thankful you have a dog who will give you a final warning: “I don’t like this,” before resorting to using teeth. Never ever punish a growl. Telling a dog “no” or ignoring a growl may cause you to lose your warning, and the next time your dog is uncomfortable, she may go directly to using teeth because, in the past, growling wasn’t acknowledged properly.

If your dog displays some of these signs of stress, think about the situations you have placed your dog in and how you can modify the environment to make your dog more comfortable. I like to do a five-second touch test to verify that dogs are enjoying being touched by me. You can try this by petting your dog for five seconds, then stopping and seeing what your dog does next. Does your dog solicit further petting from you? Or does your dog give you a sign that he’d rather be left to rest alone for a bit?

Some dogs may be experiencing fear and/or anxiety so severely that they cannot learn because of the state of their brain health. If you think your dog is experiencing severe stress and anxiety, it’s important to consult a professional as soon as possible. When you begin to understand how your dog communicates, you can better set your dog up for a happy home and ideal environment for learning.

About the Author:

Kat Stevens-Stanley is a positive reinforcement, science-based dog trainer serving the metro Detroit area. As a lifelong dog nut, Kat has cared for pets since childhood. Kat began a journey into the minds of dogs more deeply after adopting her dog, LOLA, from the Detroit Michigan Humane Society in 2007. In 2011, Kat turned her passion for dogs into a lifelong career and graduated as a certified dog trainer from Animal Behavior College. In 2013 while preparing for the first two-legged addition to join her family, Kat became a licensed educator with the Family Paws Parent Education program, a unique international community of dog trainers who specialize in supporting and educating families with babies and young children, who also share their lives with dogs. Kat enjoys membership with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, participating in seminars, and reading up on the latest in canine behavior science. In addition to dog training, Kat has worked as a pet sitter, dog walker, dog play group supervisor, and has completed a course in canine massage. Kat currently shares her home with her two dogs, LOLA & Bandit, her husband Joe, and their toddler, Margot. For more info visit 


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