Yes, dogs do not have the ability to talk like human beings. However, they still convey their feelings to you all the time through non-verbal modes of communication such as body posture, facial gestures, tail and ear movements, and sound. Since dogs use multiple mediums to communicate, you cannot understand what they are saying by looking at just one aspect of their body language. You need to look at the whole picture, which includes all elements of their body language and the immediate environment. For example, if you see your dog scratching itself, what does it mean? It may be that your dog is just feeling itchy. However, if your dog is scratching without any purpose, licking his lips repeatedly or looking around nervously, it indicates that he is nervous or scared. This time, it is not an itch that is bothering him.
Know what the body tells you
Your dog’s body language is constantly telling you if he is happy, anxious, fearful, or excited. Never forget that you have to look at the whole dog – his facial, tail and ear gestures, posture, and his immediate environment to understand what he is trying to say.
Key signs to look for in your dog’s body language
- Is your dog’s face relaxed or tense? Is he looking down, at you, or away from you?
- Are your dog’s eyes soft and smiling or are they fixed and unblinking? Can you see the whites of the eyes? Most often, if you can see the whites of a dog’s eyes, it means that he is anxious and ready to snap at someone or something.
- Are your dog’s ears standing up, drawn back, laid back flat against the head or pointing forward?
- Is your dog’s mouth open or closed? Does he have his lips pulled back and teeth showing? Or is his mouth open with his tongue hanging out?
- Is his tail stiff or limp? Is his tail hanging down between his legs or is he wagging it?
- Are his hackles standing up at the neck or all the way down in the back?
- What does his body posture tell you? Is it rigid, neutral, or relaxed? Is he standing with his weight balanced equally over all four feet or is he leaning backward, forward, or sideward? Is he trying to look inconsequential or as big and threatening as possible? Does he have his back hunched or is he trying to flatten his body to the ground?
What do these signs tell you?
Do you think that a dog with a wagging tail is happy? Or that a dog barks only when he intends to be vicious? It is not always the case. In order to interpret your dog’s body language correctly, you first have to understand how a dog behaves when he is happy, sad, anxious, stressed, scared, or relaxed.
When your dog is happy and playful
If your dog has a relaxed body and face with the ears in neutral position, chances are he is feeling happy. A happy dog has soft eyes, not a hard, penetrating gaze. His mouth will be slightly open with the tongue showing. He will not try to appear huge or threatening nor will he try to shrink or flatten his body to the ground.
A playful dog might let out short, high-pitched barks and engage in bouncy behavior to engage your interest. His mouth will be wide open with the tongue hanging out.
When your dog is unsure of the situation
If you see your dog standing at attention, it means that they are not sure of the situation and is trying to figure out how to stay safe. A dog on alert has a very determined, intense look on his faces. He may hold his ears and tail erect and his mouth firmly closed. If he growls or barks, the sound may be of a lower pitch than when he is in a playful mood.
When your dog is afraid
A frightened dog will try to make himself look small and inconsequential. He is likely to have a hunched back with the tail hanging between his legs and ears flattened back against the head. His face will be tense with the mouth firmly closed. He will not look at you directly and may lick his lips repeatedly. Sometimes, he may bark at you.
When your dog is being submissive
When your dog is sending out appeasement signals, he wants others to know that he means no harm. He will try to make his body appear small or lie flat on the ground. He may also roll over, exposing his vulnerable undercarriage. He may hold his tail low and wag it lightly or tuck it between his legs. His ears are most likely to be pinned back against his head and he may lick his lips repeatedly or avert his gaze. Though such dogs will not want to start a fight, they might lunge and bite if they feel threatened.
When your dog is being aggressive
A dog can act aggressive due to a number of reasons. An aggressive dog will have a tense stance and his eyes will be fixed on the target. He will stand as tall and erect as he can with the ears pointing forward and the tail held erect. His hackles will stand up all the way down to the back. The front legs will carry his weight and he will be ready to launch an attack. He will growl, bark or snarl and the sound will be much deeper than his barks when he is in a playful mood.
What are appeasement signals?
Dogs are social animals with a strong, inbuilt instinct for communicating, cooperating, and resolving conflict. They are hardwired to send out appeasement or calming signals to let other animals know that they pose no threat and mean no harm. Even young, untrained puppies exhibit this behavior.
It was Turid Rugaas, a renowned Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist, who came up with the term “calming signals”. According to him, dogs use 30 different signals to express peace and cooperation. These signals are typically sent out at the onset of an encounter to prevent escalation, diffuse threats, and help others calm down. You will be interested to know that dogs use appeasement signals to calm their own nervousness too.
However, while appeasement signals come naturally to dogs, not all dogs know how to use them or how to recognize them. Dogs that have been separated from their mothers or siblings at a young age or dogs that have not had many opportunities to socialize with other dogs are sometimes unable to recognize or issue calming signals. Unfortunately, this deficiency can sometimes get them into fights with other dogs that see their behavior as rude and aggressive. If a dog approaches another dog without showing appeasement signals but instead showing behaviors that indicate aggressiveness, the latter will consider the approaching dog to be a threat.
Dogs also use appeasement signals to show humans that they pose no threat or as a sign of respect. So if your dog sends you an appeasement signal, it can be a sign that he looks up to you as his leader.
And while we are on this topic, here is a very useful fact. Human beings can also send out appeasement signals to calm and reassure dogs. These are some common appeasement signals that you can use with your dog.
Common appeasement signals you can use with dogs
- Never look directly at a dog that is acting aggressively. He might interpret it as a challenge. Turn your head or avert your gaze.
- If you cannot look away, squint or soften your eyes while looking at a dog.
- Turn your body away from an aggressive dog so that you are standing sideways to him.
- Dogs just stop moving when they want to assess the situation or to wait until the other dog calms down. Human beings can use this technique too. If you have to interact with an anxious dog, just stop moving and wait till he calms down.
- Do not make fast movements. If you have to walk, use slow movements to help the dog calm down.
- Dogs sit or lie down with their back towards you to show that they do not pose a threat. Similarly, scared or nervous dogs are more likely to calm down sooner if you sit down on the ground with them.
- Dogs use yawning as appeasement signals. If you yawn and avert your gaze, it sends out a message to the dog that you mean no harm.
- If you need to go near a scared or anxious dog, do not approach him directly or head on. Instead, go towards the dog from the side in a curve.
- Sometimes, you can see a dog pushing his way between two excited dogs to prevent behavioral escalation. Similarly, you can also stand between two dogs that appear anxious or reactive to prevent the situation from deteriorating.
Interpreting other common appeasement signals issued by dogs
- You may have seen dogs vigorously sniffing something or someone to identify it. But if your dog looks away and starts sniffing on the ground, it is probably an appeasement signal.
- If a dog approaches you with a wagging tail, a tense face, a firmly closed mouth and a fixed, unblinking stare, do not mistake it as an appeasement signal. On the other hand, soft eyes, an open mouth and a lolling tongue indicate that the dog is in a playful mood.
- If a dog issues you a play bow, it is a definite sign of friendliness and interest to engage with you.
- Dogs may also choose nose licking or lip licking to calm themselves and reassure other dogs.
These are just some of the most common appeasement signals used by dogs. There are many more such signals that your dog might use while communicating with other animals and people. Keep an eye out for these signals and reward him with a treat each time you see him using them to promote good behavior.
Why are appeasement signals so important?
Appeasement signals are very important when it comes to building a strong owner-dog relationship based on trust, respect, and communication. Once you are familiar with the common appeasement signals, you can use them in your daily interactions with your dog and communicate better with him. You will be able to understand what your dog is trying to tell you and then modify your actions according to his needs. For example, if your dog is fearful or anxious, you can issue an appeasement signal to reassure him or help him relax.