Episode 7- How to Read Your Dog's Body Language

Corey McCusker  00:03
Hello dog lovers, and welcome to Muttz with Mannerz™ Canine Academy Podcast, where we’ll share dog training tips and educational information to help you raise your pup, young or old, so they can be a loving part of your family and your community for life. I’m your host, Corey McCusker, Canine Coach. Along with me, I have my cohost, Diane Purser, Canine Educator.

Diane Purser  00:26
Hi, everyone. Thanks for listening in. We just want you to know that with all our podcasts, we are giving you a lot of information, and in most cases, we’re just starting to scratch the surface. So at the end, we will always provide ways for you to find more information or how to contact Muttz with Mannerz™ for personalized help.

Corey McCusker  00:50
We have a passion for pups, and we thank you for joining us today. Today’s topic is all about your dog’s body language and what they may be trying to tell you. Dog body language is one of the key ways that they communicate with you and other dogs. Did you know ears do more than hear and that a dog can smile? When we are stressed we tense up and move away or pull back and avoid. Do you know what dogs do when they are stressed? We will touch on how dog’s body language tells us what they are feeling or trying to say.

Diane Purser  01:27
So, Corey, just so everyone knows, in this podcast, we will be describing a number of signals or cues that your dog will be giving you to communicate. We know that this will be a bit hard to picture in some cases. So we’ve included a link in the show notes from Modern Dog Magazine, by Dr. Stanley Coren. That includes diagrams of what we are discussing.

Corey McCusker  01:54
Do you ever wonder what your dog is thinking? Would you love to have a conversation with them? I know I would. And to be honest, I do have them all the time, but I’m not sure they understand me. Knowing what your dog is saying is not easy, but you can learn how to better understand them by reading their body language. A few key points to be aware of when trying to understand your dog are; one, your dog’s body language provides you with valuable information, two – your dog’s posture, movement and facial expressions show how they are feeling and behavior they are potentially about to do. And lastly, being a responsible dog owner includes understanding what your dog is telling you, or other humans, or other dogs. Today we’ll be discussing how to read your dog’s body language and other dogs that you may encounter.

Diane Purser  02:51
Good point, Corey. A good example is when I’m walking my dog, for instance. I’m always staying aware of what my dogs are doing and how they’re reacting to either people or dogs that we see on the walk. If I sense they are uncomfortable, I move away from the situation. Or if they seem eager to meet a dog, I will have a look at how the person or the dog that they are reacting to is acting. You always want to keep your dog, other dogs, and people feeling comfortable and safe.

Corey McCusker  03:24
For sure. Diane, we know most people are very familiar with barks, whines, and growls. But sometimes what is ignored are the dogs nonverbal clues. And those provide more information and make us aware of what is truly going on with our dogs. When humans understand dogs language, they can get a better idea of the emotions they are feeling or their intentions by actions they are displaying. It’s important for us to know when they are telling us that they’re scared, not liking another person or dog because they aren’t sure of them. We also know the signs when they want to play with us or other dogs. We want to review with you what you should be looking for when trying to understand them. So let’s review certain parts that can help.

Diane Purser  04:10
Great. How about we start by talking about their eyes. And again, I want to remind you that we will have a link in the show notes to diagrams that can help you visualize this better. So, back to the eyes. When I look at my dogs, I normally just see the color of their eyes. This tells me that they are relaxed and comfortable. In fact, sometimes if they’re very relaxed, they actually look like they’re squinting. So how do I know when they are not comfortable or relaxed and maybe nervous and scared? One example that many can relate to is what I see when I take them to the vet – who are amazing by the way… Or when someone new, whether it’s human or dog, approach them. What I notice is that their eyes may appear rounder, more open, very large, and showing often the white color around their eyes. Their gaze can become more intense, and they’re very focused. You can tell they aren’t relaxed, they are staring at the thing, person, or dog that they are concerned about. As well – and it’s not always obvious – but your dog’s pupils can dilate and get really big if they’re experiencing fear or arousal for some reason. Eye contact also tells us something. A hard stare can signal aggression, where if your dog looks away, it’s actually meant to calm the situation. It’s always best to not stare at your dog, as they may take it as a threat or a challenge.

Corey McCusker  05:56
Yeah, that’s so true, Diane. And you know, that’s for the staring, we’re just so used to looking at people in the eye, right? So that’s for sometimes when we do that, it really can – it can make a dog nervous. 

Diane Purser  06:07

Corey McCusker  06:07
So let’s go to their ears now, and ears do a lot more than just hear. The position of a dog’s ears can tell us whether they are relaxed or aroused. When your dog is relaxed, their ears may be slightly back or out to the sides. For example, my dog Skye, she has  erect ears. They stand straight up like a German shepherd or a husky, which I think she’s got a bit of both in her there. But every time she meets a new dog or person, she just loves them, and she wants to greet them and her ears will go right back down as she greets him. It’s easy for me to know with her. But for those dogs with floppy ears, such as a golden retriever or a lab, it’s not easy to tell as they’re already flopped down. You have to watch the base of their ears to tell. The base of their ears and the direction they are pointing can show you different emotions. So we’ve just mentioned relaxed. So how do you know when they are aroused? As they become more aroused, their ears will move forward pointing towards what they are interested in.

Diane Purser  07:16
Just before we move on, Corey, to the next body part, we want you to know that when we’re using the word ‘aroused’ throughout the podcast, it’s simply describing that your dog is not relaxed. Their arousal can indicate a positive emotion like happiness or excitement, or a negative emotion like stress, aggression, or fear. The key, as we’ll keep mentioning, is knowing that they are not relaxed and you should be looking for other cues of what they are feeling or what potential action they may take. 

Diane Purser  07:55
Corey, you mentioned that a dog can smile. It’s true. And in fact a dog that is showing their teeth doesn’t always mean aggression. You have to look at the entire body to see what the showing of teeth is telling you. Let me talk to you about my dog Fred. When he’s happy to see someone – a new person – he will almost grin. He’s relaxed and he lowers his head as he comes up to them and his tail is wagging and his ears are flat back. I know he’s relaxed, even with his mouth open, because he’s not panting and there’s no tension or pull back in his face or mouth. However, when a dog is fearful, they will generally have either their mouth closed tight with no smile. They may also pull their lips back really tight at the corners. A stressed dog may pant and suddenly close their mouth. And while we’re talking about mouths and cues they are giving with them, a misinterpretation made by many is that when your dog yawns or licks their lips, they are showing that they are tired or hungry. However yawning and lip-licking are actually two very good cues that they may be stressed. This is particularly true when accompanied by the tight mouth and a whining sound. In this podcast we aren’t discussing specifically the sounds your dogs is displaying. However, if your dog growls, that is a warning that must be taken seriously. Before a dog growls they display physical aggression warnings which may look like a wrinkle at the top of their muzzle, usually pulling their lips up to display their teeth. This warning often comes with a tense forehead and intense stare.

Corey McCusker  09:49
Diane, this is so important especially when we are training our dogs. Understand they are trying to tell us something with a growl. We need to understand what it is. Is it fear? Is it aggression? Or you know, sometimes it can even be play. If it is fear or aggression, as a dog owner, you must learn to manage your dog through this or help build their confidence. Do not train it out of them as this is their voice telling you something. So when I’m in training classes, we see a lot of examples of what we’ve been discussing in our puppy classes when they first arrive. It’s a new strange environment. There’s all new people and dogs, so they may be fearful, but they also may be playful. So we are watching their bodies because it tells us so much and knowing the signs helps me as a trainer, educate the owners of what’s going on with their dog. 

Corey McCusker  10:43
Now, this next body part is one of the most expressive but often misunderstood. To most people tail wagging seems like an easy signal, your dog is happy, right? Not so. It simply means your dog is emotionally aroused. And as Diane mentioned, aroused could mean excitement, frustration, or worse, potential aggression. When you are looking at your dog’s tail, there are two things you need to see: the position of the tail and how the tail is moving. When your dog’s relaxed, it will hold its tail in a neutral position. This means the tail extends out from the spine and maybe hangs a little bit lower. The tail movement may be loose and wag from side to side or sweeping circular motions. As your dog becomes more excited or aroused, their tail will usually rise above the spine level. They may also move their tail side to side in short rabbit movements. A fearful dog will tuck their tail between their rear legs. Their tail may also be held rigid against the belly. Some of you may be asking, ‘What if my dog’s tail has been cropped, or is very short, or it naturally curls up and over the back of the dog?’ Very good point. You can watch the position of the stub, the one to two inches that is visible, and that starts right at the rump. 

Corey McCusker  12:10
So are you aware of how a dog releases stress? Dogs can release sweat when they are hot, or when they are stressed. They release sweat through panting – through their tongue – and their paw pads. If they are stressed or overheating, they may leave wet footprints on the floor. And I say that often to people if they notice in the car, or on the pavement or on their floor, that they see those paw prints, to be aware of that. What about a shake off? You know when your dog has finished a bath or time in water, they’ll shake the water off. This is completely normal. Have you ever seen your dog shake their body when they are dry? If you have this is part of dog body language. You may notice the shake off after an event that may have been stressful for the dog. It is almost as if it signifies a break from whatever has just occurred, allowing your dog to free-frame the event, pause, and move on from it. I call it resetting themselves.

Diane Purser  13:15
Exactly. The important thing to remember is none of your dog’s body parts work alone. Like us, there could be a number of them working together. So when you are observing your dog, look at every signal from the tail height to the eye shake. Corey, let’s give them some examples of shake offs. 

Corey McCusker  13:36
Sure, because I think this is a common one that we do see a lot. One I see often is when a person hugs a dog. Some things I see are the big round eyes, or I could even see the whites, they lick their lips, they may turn their head away and yawn. All signs they are not liking the interaction. Too much invading of their space. After they are let go and put down and they walk away, they’ll do a shake off. Another is when you take your dog out for a walk. You’re getting ready to go, you grab the leash, your dog is excited and jumping up and down, maybe barking, and after you clip the leash on, they’ll do a shake off. This is to settle themselves because they are so excited. Also when two dogs approach each other, they are showing no real interest in meeting. They may be a bit tentative or guarded as they are passing. Their movements may be rather fast and jittery, showing their slight apprehension. As the dogs walk away from each other, each dog does a shake off to reset themselves. Although we would love our dogs to play with every dog they see or person they meet, it may not be right for them. So don’t force them. As we’ve been describing some examples and discussing your dog’s body parts and what they can tell you, you’ve likely noticed that most of the dogs communication is through a combination of parts and sounds working together.

Diane Purser  15:04
Really important point again, Corey. So let me describe a couple of common situations and what’s going on with them. Play. That’s a big one. When your dog wants to play, they usually play bow and exaggerate facial and body movements. A playful dog’s body will be loose and wiggly with brief pauses during play. Once they stop this behavior, that means play time is over.

Corey McCusker  15:33
Yeah, true. Diane, I want you to touch on something that I get so many inquiries about – the “zoomies”.

Diane Purser  15:41
Oh, definitely. I deal with this at my home almost every day with my dog Lola. Zoomies, or “the witching hour”, refers to those moments when your dog has a burst of energy for no apparent reason and starts racing around the house, or room, or backyard. Usually, “zoomies” are a release of built up energy that your dog has held on to and it releases it in one big burst. You probably notice that this happens at certain times of the day – either first thing in the morning, or in the evening, maybe just before bed. Some dogs get “zoomies” after a bath. While for others it can be triggered by stressful situations like visiting the vet. The “zoomies” most often occur in puppies and younger dogs, because they have naturally lots of energy that they need to burn off. But it can happen to dogs of all ages, and all breeds. And the perfect example of this is my 15-year-old Yorkie cross, Lola. Somewhere between after dinner and bedtime, and sometimes it’s right after we come in from our last little walk, she will out of the blue just start racing around the house at top speed. Now what’s really important is that you make sure your dog is safe while they’re doing this. You don’t want them to get hurt in their excitement. We do have a situation with Lola where she zooms so much that we can’t always do that, but she always comes out of it with no problems. “Zoomies” are a natural dog behavior that is most often no cause for alarm whatsoever, as long as your pup has room to zoom around without getting hurt. If you start to see, however, that it is becoming a more constant behavior, you may want to talk to someone like your dog trainer or veterinarian, just to make sure that something else isn’t going on.

Corey McCusker  17:52
Yeah, the “zoomies” are so common. I love them. And so many owners do think something’s going on with their dog. And as you explained, it is something normal, and I do love that example of a 15 year old Lola doing it. So you are aware now that your dog is talking to you all the time. If you learn what your dog is saying you build a stronger bond, gain their trust, and you know how they’re feeling or why they are behaving a certain way. And very importantly, it can prevent problems and relieve your dog’s stress. We’re going to wrap up now. And in this podcast, we’ve provided you with more insight to what’s going on with your dog or other dogs. We have just scratched the surface of the most common signals your dog may exhibit and what they’re saying. A reminder is that your dog’s body language provides you with valuable information. Their posture, movements and facial expressions show how they are feeling. And being a responsible dog owner includes you being knowledgeable and aware of what your dog’s telling you. Diane, any last words?

Diane Purser  19:01
First, everyone, thanks for joining us. But I just want to say we haven’t touched on a lot about aggression. And that will come in a future podcast as it’s a very big discussion and it’s very important. We have however mentioned it in our recent blog on dog body language, once you read that. We know that we have had to describe the visual signals or cues that we want you to understand. So remember, we’ve given you a link in the show notes to Modern Dog Magazine, and an article by Dr. Stanley Coren, that has visuals.

Corey McCusker  19:38
Thank you everyone for joining us today to discuss the understanding your dog’s body language and what they’re saying. To learn more or listen to other podcasts, please visit our website, www.muttzwithmannerz.com If you have ideas for future podcasts, any questions or ideas on any topic, please email, Corey@muttzwithmannerz.com. Thanks everyone.

Diane Purser  20:03
Thanks everyone.


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