Dogs are communicating with us all the time. They are constantly giving feedback to let us know how they are feeling at any given moment. But since they do not have spoken language capabilities like human beings do, dogs resort to communicating using a complex combination of non-verbal communications including body postures, facial gestures, tail and ear postures, sounds, and a silent networked communication of bio-electric body energy to send their messages to humans and to other dogs.
It is because they use a combination of signals to communicate that we humans cannot just look at one aspect of their body language to decipher the true meaning behind their message. In order to accurately interpret your dog’s message, you have to learn to look at the whole dog, all the elements of their postures and facial gestures, the full context of the situation, and his immediate environment to be able to draw an accurate conclusion.
A scratching dog may just mean your dog has an itch. A dog that is scratching without real purposeful, plus lip licking nervously, and his eyes are darting everywhere is most likely showing you that he is agitated or very uncomfortable about something in his environment. This time his scratching had nothing to do with being itchy.
Let Your Body Talk
Dogs subtly communicate to us how they feel. It is vitally important to look for the body language clues to be able to accurately determine if a dog is happy, worried, fearful, unsure, or aggressive. Remember to look at the WHOLE dog and his immediate environment before coming to a conclusion about what a dog is communicating to you.
What to look for in a dog’s body language:
- Face – Is it relaxed or tense? What direction is the face pointed; towards you, facing down, or away from you?
- Eyes – Are the eyes soft or are they staring hard, piercing, and fixed? Are the eyes open wide or are the whites of the eyes showing? Are they squinting or smiling eyes? Is the dog looking directly at you or is he averting his gaze down or off to the side?
- Mouth – Open or closed? Lips curled showing teeth? Open mouth, tongue hanging out, smiling? Tongue flicks or fast lip licking?
- Ears – Neutral, pricked up, laid flat against the head, drawn back, or pulled forward?
- Tail – Stiff or hanging down limply? Wagging, flagging, or vibrating? Hanging down tucked between the legs?
- Piloerectors – Hackles standing up at the neck? Hackles standing up in strip all the way down the back?
- Body Postures – Normal and neutral? Relaxed, rigid or tense? Standing with weight balanced over all four feet, or leaning forward, backward, or off to the side? Back hunched? Trying to look small? Body flattened to the ground? Standing tall, erect, practically standing on tip toes, trying to look as large and menacing as possible?
Know The Signs
Not every tail wag means that a dog is happy. Not every growl is meant to be menacing. Not every bark is about being vicious. How well do you understand dog body language? How does a dog act when he is happy? How about anxious, fearful, or aggressive? Learn to recognize these signals when you see them.
Happy, Playful Signals
A happy dog has a relaxed body and face. Tail and ears are kept in a neutral position. His tail may be wagging but need not be. His mouth is slightly open with his tongue showing. His eyes are soft and he does not have a penetrating gaze. He is not trying look large and menacing nor is he trying to shrink or move away from people. Playful dogs issue play bows and display bouncy behaviours meant to entice and initiate play. Their barks are high pitched and sharp. Their mouths are open wide and their tongues are hanging out of their mouths.
Alert, Wary, and Assessing The Situation
Dogs that are a bit unsure of a situation will stand at attention and try to figure out what they need to do to keep themselves safe. Alert dogs have a very focussed and intense look on their face. The stand very erect with their tail and ears held very erect. Their mouth will be tightly closed. He may growl or bark. Barks are of a lower pitch than happy or playful dogs.
The Excited Dog
Dogs can be excited in a happy way or in a dominant way. Happy dogs have open mouths, their muscles are not tense, and they may issue a bark. Dominant excited dogs stand very erect, rigid, and tense. Their tail is erect and may be flagging. They may shift their weight more over their hind end in case they need to jump or pounce. They may growl or bark in a deeper voice. If the dog has raised his hackles then he may also be reactive, aggressive, or fearful.
Fearful dogs want the thing that is frightening them to go away or at very least they want to make themselves shrink down and look small. Their backs are hunched, tail held between their legs, ears flattened down against their heads. Their muscles are tense. Their face is tense with a tightly closed mouth. They will not look directly at you. They may frantically lip lick or yawn. They may or may not bark at you.
These dogs rely heavily on sending Appeasement Signals. These are natural signals issued by dogs to show that they mean no threat, harm, or challenge to another dog or person. These dogs make their bodies small or as flat to the ground as they can. They may roll over and expose their vulnerable undercarriage. Tail will be held low and may wag gently or the tail may be tucked between their legs. Ears will be pinned back and held against the head. They avert their gaze, yawn, or lip lick. They may even urinate in submission. These dogs do not want to initiate an attack but if approached or if they feel cornered, they may issue a quick lunge and a bite.
There are varying reasons for a dog to act aggressively. The body postures will show a dog with a very tense body, the face is tense, eyes are fixed and staring intently on its target. He stands erect and as tall as he can. Tail is erect and ears are looking forward. Hackles are often up all the way down his back. His weight is carried over his front legs ready to lunge forward in an attack. These dogs often growl, snarl, show their teeth, and bark. The bark from an aggressive dog is a very deep sounding bark that comes from deep inside their chest unlike the higher pitched barks that come from playful dogs.
For more information on Aggressive postures and behaviours in dogs, please refer to my articles: Offensive, Defensive, And Fearful Huskies, Different Types of Aggression in Huskies, and Aggression and Biting in Huskies.
What are Appeasement Signals?
Because canines are animals that live in a social environment, they have a strong natural instinct for conflict solving, communication, and co-operation. Appeasement signals are a system of common signals used by dogs and wolves to signal that they mean no harm and that they are not a threat. These signals are hardwired and even very young puppies use them.
Notice even at only 8 weeks old Skylar is issuing a play bow to Kaya and Angel to show them that he means them no threat.
Norwegian dog trainer and behaviourist Turid Rugaas, a respected expert in the field of these natural calming signals, says that canines can use about 30 different signals to convey messages of tranquility and co-operation. These signals are used at the early stages of an encounter to prevent a behavioural escalation from happening, to avoid threats from dogs and people from happening, and calming down nervousness of both themselves and other dogs. Interestingly, Appeasement or Calming Signals are also used as a method of self soothing by dogs who feel anxious. While these signals may be natural and common to dogs, not all dogs are well schooled in how to use these signals or how to recognize them when they see them.
Unfortunately, dogs that are removed from their mothers and siblings too early tend to demonstrate a deficiency or a lack of understanding about how to read and display these natural Appeasement Signals. Also, dogs that lack proper or sufficient socialization and dogs that never get the chance to interact with other dogs (in dog parks, doggy day care, or on organized play dates) may also be lacking in this skill.
Sadly, when dogs lack this skill, it can get them into a lot of trouble. This lack of knowledge is often why many dogs trigger dog fights simply by showing up. Their behaviours are perceived to be rude, obnoxious, aggressive, or challenging by other dogs who do understand how to read and use these signals. If a dog does not see an Appeasement Signal being issued by an approaching dog, but it does see behaviours that indicate aggressiveness or challenge, it will naturally assume that the approaching dog is a threat and is looking to start a fight.
Dogs also issue Appeasement Signals to humans to show you that they have no wish to be aggressive or to challenge you. Often times dogs issue these signals as a sign of respect to anyone they view as being of a higher social ranking than them. If your dog issues you these signs, then chances are that you have earned your dog’s respect as their leader. Would you recognize an Appeasement Signal from your dog?
Interesting note: Did you know that you can also issue these Appeasement Signals to a dog to let them help calm them down and reassure them too?
Some Common Appeasement Signals
- Head turning or averting the eyes – Direct eye contact (stare) is considered to be a challenging behaviour. If a dog is acting aggressively NEVER stare at them or lock eyes with them or you will be issuing back a threat.
- Softening the eyes – An alternative to averting a gaze is to squint or not use a hard fixed gaze. Sometimes referred to as “smiling eyes”.
- Turning away – Either the whole body is turned away from you or the dog will stand sideways to you. You can also do this when an aggressive or reactive dog is approaching.
- Nose licking or tongue flicking – Dogs can do this to appease another dog or they can do this because they are feeling anxious and are attempting to self soothe.
- Freeze – Dogs will just freeze in their tracks until they get a better read on the situation or until the other dog calms down. A good approach for people to use with anxious, fearful, or reactive dogs. Just stop moving or sit down until the situation calms down.
- Walking and moving very slowly – Moving intentionally with very slow movement helps to calm the situation down.
- Play Bows – This behaviour is offered as the ultimate gesture of friendliness and as a sign of a willingness to engage with another dog or person.
- Sitting or lying down with their back towards you – Shows you that they are issuing no challenge. If you get down on the ground with them, nervous or anxious dogs tend to calm down and will be more comfortable with you. They will most likely be comfortable enough to come over to see you if you get down on the ground with them.
- Yawning – If your dog is yawning during a tense or agitated time, it is an appeasement signal. You can try yawning and averting your gaze with an anxious or fearful dog to offer them an Appeasement Signal.
- Sniffing – A dog that averts his gaze and suddenly begins sniffing the ground without real purpose is offering a calming signal. This is not to be confused with a dog that is actively sniffing a person or object to identify it.
- Curving – refers to a dog approaching from the side in an arc rather than approaching in a straight line and directly head on. You can also use this calming signal when needing to approach a fearful, anxious, or reactive dog.
- Splitting Up – refers to a dog that places their body between two tense dogs or between arguing humans to bring physical distance between them and diffuse the situation. You can use this method when you see two dogs becoming overly excited. Not to be confused with the behaviour of a dog who intentionally pushes his way between humans for attention or for reasons of jealousy or resource guarding of a human.
- Tail Wagging – when accompanied by soft eyes, an open mouth panting mouth with a lolling tongue, and possibly a play bow, this behaviour is offered as an Appeasement Signal. When a wagging tail is seen accompanying a tense body, tightly clamped mouth, and fixed stare, it should NOT be considered to be a calming signal.
These are just a few of the more common Appeasement Signals that you may see your dog give you. Since Appeasement Signals play an important part in dog to dog communication and is a behaviour that you want to foster in your dog, make sure you mark this behaviour with treat and a cue of YES when you see your dog using them.
How Knowing Appeasement Signals Can Help You
One you recognize these behaviours for what they are, you can also use this kind of communication to help you in your daily interactions with your dog. If you see that your dog is showing you that he is anxious or fearful, use this as an opportunity to change how you are interacting with your dog. Offer them an Appeasement Signal to help them self soothe, or should you encounter an anxious or fearful dog, offer one of the above Appeasement Signals to help relax the other dog.
Familiarize yourself with dog communication so that you can better understand what your dog needs from you and so that you can better communicate with your dog. A good dog-human relationship must begin with good two way communication. Only then can you hope to develop a wonderful and deep trust and respect bond with your dog.
For anyone who wishes to learn more about dog language and how they communicate, please check out these two great books:
- How To Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication, by Stanley Coren
- On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas
As always, we welcome your comments, questions, or stories regarding this topic. When we share our stories we may be helping someone who is struggling with their Snow Dog.
Helping all Snow Dogs … one owner at a time.