The key to understanding your dog, assessing his attitude and predicting his next move, is knowing how to understand his body language. Since your dog is non-verbal, his body language does the talking for him. Once you learn the following basic types of dog body language, you will be better equipped to protect yourself and your dog from dangerous situations. Understanding your dog’s body language will also aid in his training and in identifying common behavior problems.
A confident dog will stand straight and tall with his head held high, ears perked up and eyes bright. His mouth is relaxed and may be slightly open. His tail may curl loosely, hang in a relaxed position or sway gently. He is friendly, at ease with his surroundings and non-threatening.
A happy dog will show the same basic signs as a confident dog. He appears even more content and friendly than a confident dog with no signs of anxiety. He will usually wag his tail, hold his mouth open more and may even pant mildly.
A playful dog is excited and happy. His ears are up, his tail wags rapidly and his eyes are bright. He may jump and run around with glee. Often a playful dog will exhibit the “playful bow”–front legs stretched forward, head straight ahead, rear end up in the air and possibly wiggling. This is a definite invitation to play!
A submissive dog will hold his head down, ears down flat and eyes averted. His tail is low and may sway slightly but is not tucked. He may roll on his back and expose his belly. A submissive dog may also lick or nuzzle the person or other dog to further display passive intent. Often, he will sniff the ground or otherwise divert his attention to show that he does not intend to cause any trouble. A submissive dog is gentle, meek and non-threatening.
An anxious dog may act somewhat submissive, but will often hold his ears partially back and his neck stretched out. He stands in a very tense posture and may sometimes shudder. Sometimes, an anxious dog will whimper or moan. His tail is low and may be tucked. He may overreact to stimulus and can become fearful or even aggressive. If you are familiar with the anxious dog, you may try to divert his attention to something more pleasant but you should not provoke him or try to soothe him.
A fearful dog combines anxious and submissive attitudes with more extreme signals. He stands tense but is very low to the ground. His eyes are narrow and averted and his ears are flat back. His tail is between his legs and he typically trembles. A fearful dog may whine, growl or even bear his teeth in defense. He may also urinate or defecate. A fearful dog can become aggressive very quickly if he senses a threat. Do not try to reassure the fearful dog, but calmly remove yourself from the situation. If you are the dog’s owner, remain confident and strong but do not punish or try to comfort your dog. Try to move him to a more familiar, non-threatening location.
A dominant dog will try to assert himself over other dogs and sometimes people. He stands tall and confident and may lean forward a bit. His eyes are wide and he makes direct eye contact with the other dog or person. The hair on his back may stand on end, his ears are up and alert and he may growl lowly. His demeanor appears less friendly and possibly threatening. If this behavior is directed at a dog that submits, there is little concern. However, if the other dog tries to be dominant, a fight may break out. A dog that directs dominant behavior towards people can pose a serious threat. Do not make eye contact and slowly try to leave the situation. If your dog exhibits this behavior towards people, behavior modification is necessary.
An aggressive dog goes far beyond dominant. All four feet are firmly planted on the ground in a territorial manner and he may lunge forward. His head is straight ahead, ears pinned back, eyes narrowed but piercing and his tail is straight and full. He bares his teeth, snaps his jaw and barks or growls threateningly. The hairs along his back stand on end. If you are near a dog exhibiting these signs, it is very important to get away carefully. Do not make eye contact with the dog, do not run and do not show fear. Slowly back away to safety. If your own dog becomes aggressive, seek the assistance of a professional dog trainer to learn the proper way to correct the aggressive behavior.