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Training Tips: Speaking Your Dog's Language

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

By Emily Schultze

If you have ever tried to talk to someone who doesn’t speak your language, you know the bizarre series of exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions that can mark the interaction. Even though these encounters will make your future charades-playing self proud, it can still be frustrating to not be able to communicate. While differences in language typically stand out in people’s minds, there is a huge population who are often ignored—our dogs. In this Training Tip Tuesday video, New Life K9 educators Nicole and Rosa breakdown some of the ways that dogs speak to us and each other with their bodies.

A large portion of the way that dogs communicate is through body language. Whether they are lounging around at home or playing at the park, your dog is sending out signals of how they are feeling with the posture of their tail or the way they are holding their ears. In order to build a better relationship with your dog, it is important to be able to understand what they are saying. While many understand that gestures such as bowing mean their dog wants to play, there are also some that people commonly misinterpret.

One of the body language signals that people often misinterpret is a wagging tail. Many assume that a wagging tail always means that their dog is happy or excited, however the way in which your dog is wagging their tail can signal an entirely different emotion. If the tail is loose and hanging around their mid-body or lower, this usually means the dog is happy. However, if the tail is between their legs--this is a sign that your dog is scared or uncomfortable. Additionally, a tail that is tight and high relative to its normal positioning can show that the dog is on alert or feeling defensive.

Another common mistake that people make when interacting with dogs is assuming their body language is the same as humans. Things such as smiles or yawns mean something very different to dogs than they do to us. What most see as a smile on a dog is often a sign of nervousness, a tightening of the mouth that signals they are uncomfortable. A yawn is also another large indicator of stress. In fact, when dogs see us yawning, they think that we are stressed. This is often the reason your dog will come over and start licking and giving you kisses when they see you yawning--they are trying to make you feel better. This is a useful body language signal to know, as it can help you better understand the things your dog does and doesn’t enjoy. For example, educator Nicole discussed how she noticed that one of her dogs yawned whenever she started to hug or cuddle them. Knowing that yawning was a sign of stress allowed her to realize that these actions were making her dog uncomfortable.

There are a few other signs that can be indicators of stress in dogs. If a dog pauses with one paw in the air, it shows their uncertainty with a situation. Similarly, a dog who freezes is often scared of something in their environment. A small, short sneeze can also be a sign that a dog is unhappy. Body language can also tell you when your dog is extremely fearful or distressed. If a usually gentle dog is much harsher when taking a treat from your hand or refuses the treat altogether, you should remove them from their current situation as soon as possible. Being able to see the whites of a dog’s eyes when they are glancing at you or other dogs is a sign of fear. Also, since Dogs sweat through their paws, if they are leaving paw prints on the sidewalk when their paws are clean, it means that they are nervous.

While all of these tips are good to keep in mind, one of the most important points to remember when looking to understand your dog is, like humans, each dog has their own way of communicating. Instead of narrowing in on one specific part of their posture, examine multiple aspects of their behavior to see how your dog is feeling. In order to know if they are happy, sad, fearful or excited, keep an eye on your dog’s body language, because each individual dog will communicate to you in their own way. Taking the time to learn to speak their language will help you build a happier, healthier and stronger bond with your dog!


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