Our dogs communicate with us all the time, so it’s essential to understand your husky’s body language. They constantly give feedback to let us know how they feel at any moment. But since they do not have spoken language capabilities as 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 other dogs.
Because they use a combination of signals to communicate, we humans cannot just look at one aspect of their body language to decipher the true meaning behind their message. To accurately interpret your dog’s message, you must 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 draw an accurate conclusion.
A scratching dog may mean your dog has an itch. A dog scratching without real purpose, lip licking nervously, and eyes 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.
Dogs subtly communicate to us how they feel. Therefore, looking for body language clues is vital to accurately determine if a dog is happy, worried, fearful, unsure, or aggressive. Please remember to look at the WHOLE dog and his immediate environment before deciding what a dog communicates to you.
Understand Husky 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? Are hackles standing up in strips down the back?
- Body Postures – Normal and neutral? Was he relaxed, rigid or tense? Standing with weight balanced over all four feet, leaning forward, backwards, or off to the side? Was he back hunched? Trying to look small? Did the body flatten to the ground? Standing tall, erect, practically standing on tiptoes, trying to look as large and menacing as possible?
Understand Your Husky’s Body Language
Not every tail wag means that a dog is happy, or a growl is meant to be menacing. Not every bark is about being vicious. So 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 recognise these signals when you see them.
Happy, Playful Signals
A happy dog has a relaxed body and face. The tail and ears are kept in a neutral position. His tail may be wagging, but it need not be. His mouth is slightly open, his tongue showing, his eyes are soft, and he does not have a penetrating gaze. He is not trying to look large and menacing, nor is he trying to shrink or move away from people. Playful dogs issue play bows and display bouncy behaviours to entice and initiate play. Their barks are high-pitched and sharp. Their mouths are open wide, and their tongues hang out.
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 focused and intense look on their face. They stand very erect with their tail and ears held very upright. 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 happily or dominantly. 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 upright and may be flagging. They may shift their weight over their hind end if they need to jump or pounce. They may growl or bark in a deeper voice. If the dog has raised his hackles, he may also be reactive, aggressive, or fearful.
Fearful dogs want the thing frightening them to go away, or at least they want to make themselves shrink and look small. Their backs are hunched, their tails held between their legs, and their ears flat against their heads. Their face is tight with tightly closed mouth. They will not look directly at you. Instead, 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. The tail will be held low and wag gently, or it may be tucked between its 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 feel cornered, they may issue a quick lunge and a bite.
Because canines live in a social environment, they have a strong instinct for conflict-solving, communication, and cooperation. Appeasement signals are standard signals used by dogs and wolves to signal that they mean no harm and are not a threat. These signals are hardwired, and even very young puppies use them.
Although the signals are hardwired, if you integrate another husky into your pack, it’s vital that you follow the basic guidelines.
Norwegian dog trainer and behaviourist Turid Rugaas, a respected expert in these natural calming signals, says that canines can use about 30 signs to convey tranquillity and cooperation. 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, and to calm down the nervousness of both themselves and other dogs. Interestingly, Appeasement or Calming Signals are also used for self-soothing by dogs who feel anxious. However, while these signals may be natural and familiar to dogs, not all know how to use them or recognise them when they see them.
Problems with Early Weaning
Unfortunately, dogs 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 socialisation and never get the chance to interact with other dogs (in dog parks, doggy daycare, or on organised play dates) may need to improve 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 as rude, obnoxious, aggressive, or challenging by other dogs who understand how to read and use these signals. For example, suppose a dog does not see an Appeasement Signal issued by an approaching dog but does see behaviours that indicate aggressiveness or challenge. In that case, 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 that they do not wish to be aggressive or challenge you. Often, dogs publish these signals as a sign of respect to anyone they view as having a higher social ranking than them. If your dog allocates these signs, chances are you have earned your dog’s admiration as its leader. Would you recognise 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?
Common Appeasement Signals
- Head turning or averting the eyes – Direct eye contact (stare) is considered 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.
How Knowing Appeasement Signals Can Help You
Once you recognise these behaviours for what they are, you can also use this kind of communication to help you in your daily interactions with your dog. For example, if you see your dog showing you that he is anxious or fearful, use this as an opportunity to change how you interact with your dog. Offer them an Appeasement Signal to help them self-soothe, or should you encounter an anxious or fearful dog, could you offer one of the above Appeasement Signals to help relax the other dog?
You can familiarise yourself with dog communication to better understand what your dog needs from you and to better communicate with your dog. A good dog-human relationship must begin with good two-way communication. Only then can you hope to develop an excellent and deep trust and respect bond with your dog.
There are varying reasons for a dog to act aggressively. The body postures will show a dog with a taut body, and the face is tense, eyes are fixed and staring intently at its target. He stands erect and as tall as he can. The tail is erect, and the ears are looking forward. Hackles are often up 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 very deep sounding and comes from deep inside its chest, unlike the higher-pitched barks 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.
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.