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  • Dr Jen Nesbitt-Hawes BVSc MVSt MANZCVS

Can you read your dog's body language?

Updated: Apr 6

Our faithful fluffy companions use body language to communicate... and although humans can learn to understand some of what they are saying, most of us miss the point more often than we realise!

1. Relaxed dogs are floppy dogs!

Relaxed dogs have loose muscle tone, bouncy movements, and often open mouths with a tongue hanging out.

This is the body language to aim for during training, socialisation, and play, because it's when dogs learn best.

2. Early signs of discomfort can be super-subtle

Well, they're super-subtle for humans, but we can learn what to look out for. A warning though - once you can read these signs, seeing dogs at the weekend markets will never be the same!

When dogs are feeling uncomfortable, they let you know by: licking their lips, yawning, putting their ears back, closing their mouth and maybe looking away, or out of the side of their eye, so that you see some of the white. Their body is more tense.

If you see your dog showing these signs (it's pretty common) you don't need to panic. Just encourage your dog to move away from whatever it is uncomfortable about. Once you are at a distance where your dog looks relaxed again, you can give them some time to observe and move closer if they choose to do so.

If you see somone else's dog showing these signs, then please don't approach any closer, even if the person encourages you to do so.

3. Rolling over isn't always an invitation for a belly rub

If a dog's body is tense and they roll over to show their belly (particularly if they are also showing some of the other signs of early discomfort), then that dog would actually like you to move away and leave it alone.

If the dog is super floppy and wriggly, has it's tongue lolling and enthusastically flops at your feet to present it's tummy, then it probably IS interested in a rub.

4. You should ask dogs for consent, too!

Just like with people, consent looks like a continuing enthusiastic "Yes"!

Check before you start that the dog is looking relaxed about you approaching. If the dog is showing signs of discomfort, then keep your hands to yourself!

When petting a dog, do so gently and for only three seconds. Then pause and move your hand away. Does the dog lean into you, or solicit more rubs or scritches? That's a "Yes!" and you can pat the dog for another five seconds, then pause again.

If the dog stands still, tenses up, looks away, or moves off.... that's a "No more, thanks".

5. A tail wag isn't always good news

You should look at the dog's face and body to try to work out whether it's happy - not the tail. How fast a dog's tail is moving indicates it's level of excitement or emotion, but not necessarily whether it is happy. Dogs feeling anxious may wag their tails very fast, and dogs of certain breeds may hold their tails very high or very low. Dogs that are conflicted might bark at something and wag their tails too - don't approach these dogs... remember to trust the front end of the dog more than the back!

Watch your dog!

The best experts in dog body language are... dogs! The more that you observe your dog in all different situations, the more you will learn how his body language changes. This will allow you to advocate for your dog when he is feeling uncomfortable, or celebrate with him when he is enjoying himself. You can learn more of the subtle art of dog communication (and a whole lot more about your puppy or dog) with Pet Perspective's Video Course.

Dr Jen is a Member of the ANZCVS Veterinary Behaviour Chapter, and runs Pet Perspective - a business dedicated to providing behaviour educational materials for pet professionals and their clients. Please see the website: 

for more information.


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