Before I adopted my younger dog Zoe the Sato, I didn’t really know much about dog training or how to read canine body language. Sure, I had my older dog Esme the Bichon Frise, but I didn’t really do much aside from teach her basic commands and I was totally ignorant about what she was trying to tell me.
All of that changed when my little Sato girl came home with me in October 2013 and quickly developed fear issues out the wazoo. I dived into the wonderful world of force-free dog training and was forced to quickly become fluent in canine body language.
For example, before Zoe waltzed into my life, I erroneously believed that a wagging tail always meant that a doggo was happy. Now I know that isn’t true; a slow wagging tail is a sign that a canine is happy, but if their tail is wagging and it’s stiff but moving pretty quickly, that’s a good indicator that they aren’t the least bit happy.
Reading doggie body language takes a bit of practice, but with some help from lists like mine or smartphone apps like the Dog Decoder by Jill Breitner, it won’t be long until dog owners will be able to become fluent in canine.
10 Dogs Hate Hugs
As a general rule, dogs do NOT like to be hugged. Sure, there are some dogs that can be conditioned to like or at least tolerate it, but the rule of thumb for pet owners is to not hug ‘em, and don’t let your kids hug ‘em either.
Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings notes that when you can see the whites of the dogs eyes (called “whale eye”) and there’s a lot of tension in the muzzle like the photo above, that means the pooch is stressed and you need to stop what you’re doing ASAP lest you get a well-placed nip from Fido.
9 Do Not Want, Ma
This is my Sato, Zoe and in this photo, she was getting nervous about a noise she heard in the distance. The night before, some inconsiderate jerk set off illegal fireworks in my neck of the woods in Brooklyn for Memorial Day and she was jumpy for the next to days.
Doggie Drawings points out that when dogs pull their ears back, have squinty eyes and have a tight muzzle, that’s a clear sign of stress. In this case, Zoe was reacting to the children shooting off poppers in the park and was showing clear signs that she was NOT happy.
8 I Can Has Food, Please
Looking at the canine body language descriptions at Positively and then at this photo of my dog walking client Chewy the terrier mix, it’s easy to see that he’s calm and alert because his eyes are bright, his ears are forward and his mouth is lolling open.
There’s no signs of “whale eye” and he’s not licking his lips or turning his head away from the camera—all of which are clear canine stress signals. He’s just a happy boy enjoying his walk and asking for a yummy treat from his walker.
7 Fireworks Are Sent By The Devil
In this photo, my dog Zoe was having an honest-to-goodness panic attack because of the illegal fireworks in NYC. She is noise phobic, and will have a meltdown if she hears a thunderstorm or a volley of fireworks shot off by my pyromaniac neighbors.
Although you can’t tell in the photo, she was trembling like a leaf—a sign of stress and terror, according to Positively. Her eyes are wide, red, and glassy—another indicator that she’s petrified. Her mouth is also open and she’s panting heavily, which is another sign of stress.
6 Cool As A Cucumber
My client Willow the Golden Retriever is the epitome of a happy, relaxed dog since she’s always happy and generally acts as if she’s a giant ray of sunshine instead of a dog.
As Positively notes, dogs that are calm and collected have their mouth open slightly with their tongue hanging out to one side--check. Relaxed facial expression? Also check. It’s hard to tell because it’s a photo, not a video, but her entire rear end was wiggling before I got her to sit relatively calmly for the photo too.
5 The Stressies
According to the dog’s owner post on social media, this little guy’s name is Hubert and he was freaking out when he heard something in the distance.
Victoria Stilwell, the celebrated dog trainer behind Positively, writes that when a dog licks their lips, it can be a sign they are nervous and uncomfortable about something. In poor Hubert’s case, he was freaked out about the noise he heard and this was his way of saying “I don’t like this, fam.”
4 Let's Play, Bro
The Mishmay Foundation writes that when a dog sinks into a bow with their front legs, this is a signal that they want to play with another dog. The white Shepherd mix in the photo is saying to the fluffy golden dog “Hi, how are you? Would you like to be friends and play with me?”
A play bow when a dog is standing still instead of moving their front legs from side to side can also be used as a calming signal—i.e.; a way to reassure the other dog that they mean them no harm and to divert the tension.
3 I'm No Threat
Positively notes that when a dog rolls over onto their side or their stomach that means they’re nervous and they’re trying to appease the other pooch. The ASPCA adds that this signal often comes with a tucked tail, which is another way to tell if your dog is fearful about this interaction.
In the case of this Pug, he’s obviously NOT happy about having three dogs trying to greet him at once and so he rolled over in an attempt to appease the group because he personally feels uneasy about being mobbed like that.
2 Ooo, I Don't Like It
According to Positively, when a dog’s fur stands up on their backs like they have a Mohawk, this is a sign of discomfort. The proper term for the mini-Mohawk is called “piloerection” and it’s done as a way to make the dog seem bigger while also releasing an odor from the glands that are located in the pupper’s fur follicles.
My dog Zoe gets the mini-Mohawk when she’s nervous about a dog she sees in the distance, and that’s a big sign for me that she’s getting over threshold and we need to make a U-turn so she doesn’t wig out from her neuroses.
1 Yawning Isn't Me Being Tired, Sis
Positively writes that when a dog yawns, it rarely is an indicator that they are tired. In general, it’s usually a sign that they’re uncomfortable or unsure about something. The Mishmay Foundation adds that yawning can also be a calming signal used by a dog to diffuse tension, reassure themselves or let another dog know that they’re not going to be a bully and mean them no harm.
In the case of this adorable Wheaten Terrier, the owner noted that he was a little uncomfortable with the camera being right in his face and he started to yawn as a way of asking his human pal to PLEASE get the phone out of his muzzle.