How many times have you wished your dog could talk so you could know exactly what they are thinking?
But they don’t need to speak to clue you in. Veterinary behaviorists say if you learn to read your dog’s actions, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on in their head.
Debra Horwitz, veterinary behaviorist and lead editor of Decoding Your Dog, says the key is looking at your whole dog, rather than a portion of them, like just their tail. Observing what your dog does with their face, body, and tail in any given situation will let you know if they are feeling relaxed, concerned, scared, or aggressive.
When you look at your dog, what do you see?
Are they happy?
“When a dog is happy, his whole body looks soft,” Horwitz says. “And when a happy dog wags his tail, the tail wags his whole body. He has relaxed ears, a soft pant, eyes are soft. Everything about him says, ‘I’m cool. I’m good.’”
Are they interested and stimulated?
A dog that’s doing what their genes tell them to is a happy dog, Horwitz says. When a retriever is fetching, their body language screams, “I’m totally into this!” Same thing goes for a terrier who gets a chance to sniff out a critter or whip a new toy back and forth, and a border collie that’s being directed through an obstacle course. Presented with a mere hint of these activities, the dog may run out of pure joy, wag its tail, bark, grin, and spin in circles.
Once you find out what makes your dog happy in this way, offer them this activity as often as you can.
Are they concerned?
Let’s say you’re outside with your dog, and another dog suddenly shows up on the scene. If your dog doesn’t know this dog, they are likely to show their concern by stiffening the other dog's tail and wagging it in a way that doesn’t wag the body.
“That kind of tail wag says, ‘I’m thinking, I’m assessing,’” Horwitz says.
The wagging tail may go straight up, which shows a heightened alert.
When a little nervous, your dog may draw their ears closer to their head and pant a little faster, or may close their mouth to enable them to sniff to check everything out. They may also open their eyes wider to let in more light.
Are they afraid?
Dog owners often confuse fear in a dog with shame or guilt, says Melissa Bain, assistant professor of clinical animal behavior at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
You come home from work to find your dog has had an accident in the house, or maybe they have chewed your shoe. You express strong disapproval, giving them a stern talking-to. They react by holding their body close to the ground, pinning their ears back, and tucking their tail between his legs.
“He may look like he feels guilty, but he’s actually scared and anxious about what you might do,” Bain says.
Fear of someone your dog doesn’t know looks different.
When dogs are afraid of something or someone unfamiliar that’s coming at them, they are likely to get into a defensive posture that signals they are ready to fight, Horwitz says.
It’s likely that your dog will “go rigid and tall, trying to make himself look bigger than he is, and his tail will go up very high and stiff,” she says. The dog is hoping the threat will just go away.
Are they angry?
Maybe not. If your dog tears up your furniture while you’re away, you may think they are angry at you, or spiteful. But most dogs who do that fear being alone, Horwitz says. They’re displaying separation anxiety. Others do this because they don’t get enough attention or exercise. Talk with your vet, or a pet behaviorist, to come up with solutions.
Are they in pain?
Crying can be another area of misunderstanding. Many owners think a dog that’s whining is trying to signal pain, when in fact many times dogs will whine just to get you to get up from your computer and pay attention to them. They may also whine because they’re anxious, Horwitz says. If your dog is whining, check them over to make sure they are not in pain. If you give them attention and they still don’t stop, call your vet.
Taking the time to learn how to read your dog will enhance your enjoyment of pet ownership, and it will make for a very content, comfortable dog, Bain says.
“It’s imperative that pet owners understand what their dog is saying,” she says. “It’s the key to a great relationship.”