Dogs have a rich and varied language for communicating. This is partly inherited from their wolf ancestors, but has also developed over thousands of years of selective breeding. Unlike humans, this language is almost entirely non-vocal. Subtle changes in body position, movement speed and behavior can indicate different emotions to other dogs.
Unfortunately, many of these signals are either missed or misunderstood by humans. This isn’t surprising, as dog communication is very different to our verbal language. Sometimes even dogs themselves have trouble understanding each other! It’s still important to learn the basics of dog body language though. This can help you understand what your dog is feeling and how he is likely to react to a situation.
With that in mind, here are six surprising ways dogs communicate that humans often miss.
Does your dog sneeze when you’re about to go on a walk? Or when you’re holding a toy? If so, this is probably caused by anticipation of what’s about to happen. Many dogs sneeze repeatedly when they are excited – although this signal is more common in small dogs. Of course, sneezing can also have medical causes. Infections, allergies and household chemicals can all cause a dog to sneeze.
2. Licking Lips
Most people associate a dog licking his lips with food anticipation. This is often the case – but it’s not the only reason a dog licks its lips. Lip-licking can also indicate fear. A quick “flicking” of the tongue over the lips, for example, is often used as a sign of appeasement. You’ll commonly see this behavior if a dog is being told off by its owner as a way of saying “please keep calm.” Excessive licking when there’s no food is also a sign of anxiety. In fact, this is one of the best signals to look for when assessing how your dog feels about a situation.
A good example is hugging or kissing. Dogs that are hugged often show anxiety by licking their lips and looking away, but these signals are usually missed. Studies have also shown dogs left on their own for long periods lick their lips more often, along with other behaviors such as body shaking.
Dogs have developed behaviours that help them calm down when frustrated or excited. A common example is shaking the body to relieve stress, but there are many others. One of the most frequent is yawning. Owners often assume that a yawning dog is tired – and this is sometimes the case. It can also mean the dog is frustrated, stressed or trying to control its excitement though.
The best way to judge a yawn is to consider the situation. Have you been practicing a training command with the dog? If so, he may be frustrated and trying to tell you he’s had enough. Are you in a new or stressful situation? Then a yawn is probably an indication that your dog is feeling anxious. Or is the dog just lying on his bed? In this case, a yawn probably means he’s tired.
4. Giving “Whale Eye”
One of the more subtle ways a dog communicates is through the whites of the eyes. “Whale Eye” is when the dog shows more of the sclera (whites of the eye) than normal. This is often combined with turning the head away while keeping the eyes fixed on the person or object. When a dog shows this type of body language, he is trying to tell you that he feels anxious. It’s important to identify the “threat” and do something to fix it, as he may become defensive if he feels trapped.
In most cases, the cause of a dog’s anxiety is obvious once you know how to read his body language. A stranger entering the environment, child playing in the same room or even just a strange noise can cause it. Unfortunately, “Whale Eye” can be difficult to see in some dogs. Snort-nosed dogs tend to have more visible eye whites, so it may seem like they are giving “Whale Eye” when they are not. For this reason, make sure you consider the context of the situation and other body language signals.
5. Looking or Turning Away
A dog that feels uncomfortable or anxious will show he doesn’t want to interact by turning away. He might just turn the head away, but in some cases will shift his body to make it even more obvious. This signal is used all the time when two dogs are interacting. It doesn’t just show the dog wants to avoid an interaction, but also that he’s non-threatening. Dogs also use it when people are making them anxious though – and in this situation it’s often missed.
If you notice your dog turn away or avert his gaze, you can help him by removing whatever is causing him to feel anxious. If it’s a child approaching, for example, then he’s saying he doesn’t want to interact – at least at the moment. If you’re trying to groom him with clippers, maybe the noise is scaring him and you need to use positive reinforcement methods to make him feel more comfortable.
6. Tail Wagging
The classic sign that a dog is happy is when it wags its tail. In most cases, this means the dog is excited to see the person or dog. A wagging tail doesn’t always mean happiness though. Aggressive dogs often wag their tail in a stiff pattern, for example, which can sometimes trick people into thinking they are friendly. If a dog is wagging his tail while tucking it between his legs, then it’s probably a sign of fear. This is why it’s important to consider the dog’s overall body language and context before deciding what he’s trying to communicate.
Dog body language can be subtle and difficult to understand – especially when you first start looking for it. But you don’t need to be an expert to see the most common signals that your pet is happy, anxious, fearful or defensive.
The more you watch for the behaviors in this article, the more you’ll realize just how often your dog is trying to communicate. Your relationship with your dog will also improve as you become better at picking up on what he’s trying to tell you.