Canine body language is something we all think we have figured out. Man’s best friend is intertwined with our culture for so long that we’ve picked up on a lot of it. However, some things are a bit more elusive and that can be dangerous. Take a look at our guide to canine body language to be sure that you and yours are safe around dogs.
It’s important to take two things into account when assessing your dog’s behaviour: the situation and the entirety of the dog’s behaviour. We’ve outlined a few common movements, but just like our own body language, you have to take it all into account. You wouldn’t assume a person is comfortable just because they’re smiling at you. Well, too many people do, but shouldn’t. The fact that their body was turning to the door or they keep looking at their watch or their phone is important context, even if they’re smiling. Canine body language is no different. You have to take in all the little movements the dog is making to get an accurate assessment.
Showing their teeth
One such example of taking context into account when reading canine body language is showing their teeth. Did you know dogs smile? They smile like us, no less. As in, they show their teeth to smile. The problem with that is that we associate a dog, or any other animal, baring their teeth as a sense of aggression, and you might think they’re snarling.
The context that might back this up is a growl coming with the “smile”, an arched back, lowered tail or ears, etc. but if they’re sitting nicely, excitable, or laying down they might just poke their teeth out to smile at you.
Licking their lips
Lip-licking is an aspect of canine body language that is often misinterpreted. Sure, like the rest of us, a dog will lick their lips to really appreciate their meal, and unlike the rest of us, (hopefully) a dog will lick your face to show they appreciate you, but this is where context is important. Dogs lick their lips if they feel anxious or uncomfortable with a situation, so take into account what the situation is. If your dog hasn’t eaten in a while, they might feel anxious about what’s happening around them.
Licking your face, however, has left experts baffled for years. You’re giggling and so the dog continues, but it might not be the kisses we interpret it as. We all taste a little salty from our sweat, so dogs might just like the taste, and then there is the theory that it comes from the mother/pup relationship. According to the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in Columbia University, pups of wild canids like foxes and wolves would lick their mother’s face to get her to regurgitate her hunt. Additionally, it might just be comfort learned from their mother, as your dog would have been licked by their mother as a pup.
Showing their belly
A dog showing their belly is generally considered a submissive move of canine body language. The belly is their most vulnerable space, so they’re showing that they trust you by exposing it. They might be asking for some affection if they approach you and lie down on their back, but it’s also considered a sign of submission. They are showing you they’re not a threat by showing you their belly. So, it’s a sign of mutual affection.
Practically, if there’s no one in the room or they don’t appear to be trying to catch your attention, your dog might simply be trying to get comfortable. Dogs lie on their back to cool down, but often just sleep on their back too. Still, it’s nice they feel comfortable enough to do it around you.
Soft or hard eyes
The term “puppy dog eyes” exists for a reason. If your dog wants something or is feeling affectionate, you’re going to see it in their eyes. You can instinctively tell the difference between soft and hard eyes. Soft eyes will have you saying “Don’t look at me like that” for example, but harder proof of this canine body language indicator is relaxed lids and a slight squint. This indicates that your dog is calm, or happy, or looking for something from you. You will also know hard eyes when you see them. They will go cold and indicate that the dog is feeling aggressive. If this develops into a long hard stare, this might be a threat. Think of the way the dog looks at the postman from the living room window. From that alone, you can guess that hard eyes mean that the dog is getting territorial or feeling threatened.
It’s easy to get canine body language wrong, especially since they can be very subtle and what we can see we tend to attribute to human motives. It’s part of the human condition to see the human in everything, but it’s important to know that your dog might doing what might be considered a friendly human action for an aggressive reason in order to stay safe.