A staggering 4.5 million people in the United States are bitten by dogs every year. Half are children. In addition to human safety, learning to read dog body postures can decrease your dog's stress and ultimately save the dog's life since behavior problems are the #1 cause of relinquishment to animal shelters.
This article will give you some pointers that will help you read your dog's body postures and understand what he’s trying to tell you.
The Basics: Getting Started
- What breed is the dog? Know what postures are normal for a particular breed or individual dog. This can vary dramatically and impact your dog's message. German Shepherds tend to carry their tails down and Shih Tzus tend to hold their tails up, so a change from this position may be more telling than when their tails are in the "normal" position.
- Look at the entire dog. Although we rely on certain key body parts when assessing posture, such as ear and tail position, the posture of these specific body parts must be taken into context with the entire posture of the dog.
- Body postures can be subtle. For example, dogs with floppy ears may put their ears back a little, which may be hard for us to see.
- Surgery can change your dog's ability to communicate, such as if his tail or ears are cropped.
- Body postures may change over time. Your dog may start out with fearful body postures, but as he learns that his behavior is effective, i.e. his aggression works to drive scary people away, he may start to look more confident, even though his underlying motivation is fear.
Fearful Body Postures
Most dogs with behavior problems tend to be fearful and stressed rather than confident.
- Ears back
- Tail down or tucked between the legs
- Backing away
- Looking away
- Head down
- Crouching, cowering
- Wrinkled eyebrows
Other Signs of Stress
- Refusing food
- Increased activity/pacing
- Muzzle licking
- Lifting 1 front paw in the air
- Showing all teeth
- Peeing or pooping inappropriately
- Expressing anal glands (produces a stinky, fishy smell)
- Eyes widening so that the pupil is enlarged
Note that the context is also very important. A trembling dog may be cold, not anxious. A yawning dog may be tired, not anxious. A salivating dog may be hungry or nauseous, not anxious.
Confident Body Postures
The opposite of fear is confidence, although many dogs will show a combination of fear and confident body postures.
- Ears forward
- Tail up
- Standing straight up
- Direct eye contact
How to Approach a New Dog
People tend to interact with dogs by approaching the dog straight on, looming over the dog, and putting their hand out or reaching for the dog's face. This human behavior causes dogs to become more fearful.
Instead, let the dog approach you, ask the dog's owner if they enjoy petting, and if they enjoy petting, pet on the dog’s body rather than the head. If a dog is showing signs of fear or aggression, including growling, snarling, snapping, biting, or barking, then move away and don’t interact with the dog.
Test Your Knowledge
Question 1: What does it mean when your dog wags his tail?
Answer 1: Tail wagging can have various meanings. A loosely wagging tail carried low but not tucked is generally friendly. A dog that holds his tail up stiffly with a fast wagging tail is generally agitated or aggressive.
Question 2: What does it mean when your dog rolls over and exposes his stomach?
Answer 2: Look at your dog's entire posture. Are his ears flat back or neutral? Is his tail tucked or relaxed? Although some dogs may roll over in anticipation of a belly rub, this can also be a very submissive posture. The dog may be doing everything he can to tell you he does not want you to interact with him. In these cases, if you reach down to pet him, you may get bitten.
In conclusion, learning to read your dog's body postures will help you communicate with your dog, keep people safe, and decrease the chance that behavior problems will lead to relinquishment.
Know someone who doesn’t follow these tips or a parent who could use a reminder? Send them this article. It could save a dog’s life.