Due to being a social species, dogs have complex communication signals — mainly based around body language signalling.
We humans often misinterpret our dogs' body language or vocal signals, which can be damaging for our relationship with them. For example, the ‘guilty look’ is actually often a sign of fear. Our understanding is that dogs do not feel guilt (at least not in the same way we do). The ‘guilty look’ is most likely a dog sensing their owner’s annoyance or making an association with mess all over the floor and their owner being angry at them.
Dogs have a lot of subtle body language signals that we often don’t notice. This could lead to someone believing that their dog bit them without any warning, when in fact that person failed to understand the dog’s signals to be left alone.
Signs of a happy dog
Generally, if a dog is feeling relaxed or experiencing positive emotions, their body language will be very loose, wiggly and relaxed. The tail will be a mid-high position (not tucked under the body or positioned very high). The tail may be doing big and slow wags. The ears will be relaxed and may be positioned to the side or facing forwards. The eyes may be facing forwards and relaxed, and the dog may feel more inclined to look at you (rather than avoiding eye contact completely). Relaxed and confident dogs will be more likely to approach you willingly, without there being tension in their face or body.
Signs of a stressed dog
Stress can be caused by negative feelings such as fear, anxiety, pain or frustration. Understanding dog body language, and knowing when to give a dog space is an important step to prevent aggressive or bite incidents.
Common signs of stress include:
Wide eyes, looking away
Leaning or walking away
Tail positioned low or underneath the body
Panting (when it's not hot and the dog has not been exercising)
Rolling on the back with a tense posture
The 'ladder of communication'
The ‘ladder of communication’ is a scale of behaviours that dogs will use to indicate that they wish to be left alone. Behaviours high up the ladder include barking, growling, staring, leaning forwards and biting.
Examples of behaviours lower down on the ladder include licking the nose, yawning, turning the head away, walking away and rolling on the back in a tense posture. If a dog feels that their behaviours low down on the ladder aren’t being listened to, then they may resort to behaviours higher up on the ladder to communicate that they wish to be left alone.
This is why it is important to tune into your dog's body language signals. If you notice your dog showing signs of fear or stress, then give them space!
About the author
Megan Richardson is a Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CAB) and Animal Training Instructor with the Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC). Megan is also a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC).