In her conference on calming signals, Christine Dolan first took a lot of time to explain dogs’ body language. Body positions and facial mimics give a lot of information on the dog’s feelings toward a particular situation: is it feeling confident or insecure? Does it look stressed, scared, aggressive, calm, or happy? Understanding the dog’s present state of mind gives valuable clues on what actions it is going to take next. Anticipating these is very important if you want to avoid particular reactions.
1) General body position
A calm dog which does not feel like it needs to attack or retrieve from a situation will comfortably stand straight on its four paws with its weight distributed equally. A scared and insecure dog will want to disappear from that situation by rounding its back, by staying very low on its legs, perhaps even bending them, and by having most of its weight on its rear legs. On the opposite, a confident dog willing to attack in a situation will stand high, maybe even leaning toward the dog or person it is interacting with, and it will have most of its weight on its front paws.
Tail positions and movements give quick and very visual clues on the dog’s state of mind. A relaxed and low tail means the dog is relaxed in a situation and does not feel any stress. If the tail is high, the dog is going through some stress, either positive or negative. A big tail with hair standing up is definitely a sign of a very negative stress: the dog is feeling threatened and wants to look threatening. When the tail is very high, almost vertical, then you have in front of you a very confidant dog in a situation which wants to “flaunt” it! A dog that is feeling insecure will keep its tail low, from a rounding back, and the tail might even go in between its legs. If the tail goes as far as touching the dog’s belly, then the dog is completely terrified.
A wagging tail does not mean a happy dog! Slow and hard movements mean the dog is feeling stressed. Fast movements from a relaxed tail means the dog is feeling happy and/or having fun.
Of course, long tails are easier to “read”, but if your dog has a very short tail, then you just have to look at the direction of the base of its tail to get the information.
Here too, some ears are easier to read. Again, look at the base of the ears to get the information you can if your dogs have cropped ears or very long ears that do not seem to move much. Relaxed ears are from a relaxed dog. If the ears are pointed in a direction, it shows interest and curiosity. If the ears are way back, close to its head, then the dog is anxious, insecure and perhaps scared.
Eyes are usually very expressive, so you just need to know how to read them. A relaxed face with relaxed eyes where no white is showing means just that, relaxation. If instead the white of the dog’s eyes can be clearly seen, the dog is most probably feeling anxious and insecure. If the dog’s forehead is wrinkled, it is another sign that it is not sure about the situation. But if the forehead and the muzzle are wrinkled and the eyes are blunt, then you have in front of you a confident dog that is willing to “attack the situation it is in”.
A happy and relaxed dog might pant with his lips relaxed and no teeth showing. This is the typical “dog smile”. When a dog closes its mouth tightly, it is feeling stressed. It might even stop to breathe if its stress level is very high. Of course, teeth showing are not a good sign: either the dog is trying to look scary to make what it feels like a threat go away or it bluntly wants to attack the person or dog it is annoyed with. Watching all other signs will give more important information so you react accordingly.
Watching your dog is a relatively easy way to get some clues on what is going on inside its head. In a harmonious relationship, you do not want anybody to feel scared or threatened (or be threatening).
This video shows examples of relaxed, insecure, scared and aggressive dogs:
Try to identify all the subtle signs that give you that whole picture!