While dogs are yet to master human speech, they are extremely reliable communicators. Like humans, the majority of what your dog has to say is expressed via body language and, according to pet specialists James Wellbeloved, our canine friends have evolved to display a huge array of signals, expressions and postures, which, when properly understood, can help us understand what they are thinking and feeling.
Why it is important to understand your dog
While we cannot yet interpret if your dog would rather holiday in the Algarve this year rather than Cornwall, dogs’ body language are a great indicator of mood and intention. Whether your dog is feeling happy, anxious or afraid is useful information, because it informs you (i) if you are looking after your dog effectively, and (ii) if there is something causing your dog to feel uncomfortable.
Despair in dogs generally manifests as a lack of interest, voluntary isolation and general inactivity. While a wagging tail can mean many things, a complete absence of it is a sign of depression, especially when accompanied by your dog keeping their ears flat against their head.
Depression in dogs can be caused by many things, including that you are not engaging enough with your dog. Certain breeds require more play, longer walks, and more mental stimulation than others, so be sure you are giving your dog the attention they need.
Anxiety and fear in dogs will initially result in them licking their lips, blinking slowly and yawning excessively. Unfortunately, these are rather subtle signals and are easily missed.
If you fail to reassure your pet at the initial stages of anxiety, your dog will begin to hunch their body, shifting their weight onto their back legs in case of the chance to make a quick escape. They will also tuck their tail between their legs and attempt to avoid eye contact with whatever is causing the reaction.
It is important to be vigilant of stressful body language because, if not addressed, it can lead to aggressiveness. A dog that feels they cannot escape and who believes their owner is ignoring their pleas for help will feel trapped, and a trapped dog may pull his or her lips back and bite.
Many owners mistakenly label their dog as aggressive, but this is normally because they miss the stress signs their dog is communicating to them. Over time, the dog goes straight to acting with hostility as they have learned it is the only way to get a reaction.
You can spot a happy dog from a mile away, but it is still worth noting the signs. A wagging tail can mean many things, including dominance or excitability, but when accompanied with a desire to play, relaxed facial expressions, ears and eyes, and the occasional bark to prompt you to interact with them, you can be sure you are doing something right.
As social animals, dogs want to form a bond with you and watch your face and postures for signs of how you are feeling and what you want, so they can help. By learning your dog’s postures and stressors, you, too, can help keep your dog stay happy and relaxed.