Speak Softly and (sometimes) Carry a Big Stick: A Short Guide to Some of Your Dog’s Body Language

Posted on May 12, 2022
Written by Cassie Cook

by Cassie Cook

Posted May 12, 2022
Fetch Stick Puppy Dog Action  - 14230021 / Pixabay

Have you ever wondered what your dog is trying to tell you? Most dogs are highly reliant on body language to communicate with humans and other dogs. Often, we miss the “softer spoken” communication that they have developed over the last 15,000 years or so that has allowed them to so uniquely fit into the weird, wide world of the two-leggeds.   So let’s talk about some signs you can look for to gauge your dog’s comfort level at the vet’s office…or anywhere else!

A quick note before we start: Behavior is CONTEXTUAL, and therefore, these pictures may not represent the true feelings of the dogs in them. However, we are going to use them as a discussion tool in this blog so that we can (hopefully) boost your doggy communication knowledge! 

Eyes

The eyes can be the windows to the soul…or the brain!  While some of the signals shown may not often be noticed, they can be useful clues that your dog is  under stress.

 

Whale Eye: “Whale Eye” is when the whites of a dog’s eyes are showing, particularly when they do not show under normal circumstances. 

 

Squinting: Your dog likely isn’t tired at the vet’s office, so if they are squinting or blinking a lot more than usual, they might be telling you they are uncomfortable! 

 

Furrowed brow: A classic sign of worry in people, a furrowed brow can also indicate that your dog is unsure of something going on in their environment. 

 

Ears

The position of your dog’s ears can be a telltale sign of stress also.  The important thing to focus on is the base of the ear, not just the larger flat part (known as the “pinna”). Below are a couple of examples of both floppy and straight ears in neutral position, and how they can change from forward-facing to flattened completely back. Remember: Since your dog is wonderfully unique, they may not fit these picture examples perfectly. That’s ok!  Take note of how your dog’s ears look when they are relaxed at home, then see how they change in different situations. 

 

Mouth

What is the first thing you think of when you think of an upset dog? Is it teeth? Well if it is, you certainly wouldn’t be alone.  A dog with bared teeth is a pretty recognizable sign that they are uncomfortable. BUT, they can show their teeth in different ways that can include a polite request, play behavior, a learned behavior, or a heavy insistence that something or someone backs off. It’s important to consider your dog’s history.  

 

Lip-licking: If your dog is not in the middle of a tasty snack, repeated lip-licking may indicate they are not quite sure of their environment, especially if the tongue moves straight up over the nose as in the picture on the right.  

 

Yawning: Unfortunately is it a very rare instance that a dog is comfortable enough at the vet clinic to simply lay down and take a nap!  While the first thing we as humans think of when we see our pets yawn is that they may be sleepy, it can in fact be an indicator that they are uncomfortable in a situation.

 

Overall Body Posture

Below are just a few of the body postures that can indicate stress in your pup.

In picture A we can clearly see the teeth and flattened ears, but also notice this dog’s lowered head and “hunched” body posture.  He is telling us in no uncertain terms that he is uncomfortable with the situation.  In picture B the dog has a majority of his weight pushed forward, and his head is held high for maximum focus on their surroundings.

 

The dog in picture C is leaning her whole body away and seems ready to remove herself from the situation to gain relief.  Finally, in picture D the dog is lifting his paw as a sign of uncertainty. (There are breeds of dog in which this behavior has been bred into them for years e.g. Pointer breeds, but as we said in the beginning of this blog, behavior is highly dependent on context, and since we do not know what this dog is looking at, nor it’s breed make-up or learning history, we can use this as an example of stress related behavior.)  

 

Tail Talk

True or False? A wagging tail is a sure sign of a happy dog. 

If this poorly veiled attempt to trick your brain succeeded, you would think “Definitely true!” However, you would be mistaken! A wagging tail only ever emphasizes the other body language that your dog is showing.  This means that of course, a wagging tail can be a sign of excitement or happiness BUT NOT ALWAYS! If your dog is showing several other signs of stress or anxiety and his tail happens to be wagging, it may be better to trust the other signals he is giving you.  

 

Putting it All Together

Dogs Border Collies Grass Pets  - Helix_Games / Pixabay

While all of these things we have talked about can be behavioral indicators that your dog is uncomfortable, often dogs will show more than one signal at a time in a wide variety of situations.  So don’t forget to check your dog’s surroundings when evaluating what your dog is telling you!  Thanks so much for taking the time to learn more about your pet! 

Hopefully, you have learned a thing or two about how dogs communicate with other beings in their world!

By Cassie Cook

Cassie has been a technician at AAAC for 8 years and in the veterinary field for over 10 years. She has a special interest in animal behavior and training, particularly as it relates to veterinary care. She is a Fear Free Elite Certified Veterinary Professional and a Cat-Friendly Veterinary Professional. She is also currently pursuing a Master's degree in clinical animal behavior through the University of Edinburgh. When she is not at the clinic, she enjoys spending time working outside on her small "almost-acre" just south of Ames.
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