You Don’t Have a Clue What Your Dog Is Feeling
A new study found that humans are terrible at reading canine body language. But with the help of a few experts, you can learn.
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A few months ago, my partner and I went cross-country skiing in the Tahoe area. We brought our dog, Halle, a border collie and German shepherd mix. She quickly got used to the strange sticks attached to our feet and trotted alongside us. While other dogs on the trail were off-leash, ours was clipped into a long line to keep her safe and out of the way of other skiers.
At one point we stopped to let a skier-dog duo go by, but the dog locked eyes with Halle and stalked toward her. He was somewhat crouched and his body was stiff. This was a red flag to me, but the owner didn’t call back or leash the dog. When he reached Halle the two started fighting and the owner had to pry his dog away.
This was a bummer for many reasons, but one is that it would have been avoidable if the owner had read his dog’s body language. That dog did not look like he just wanted to say hi! But the owner either didn’t notice or wasn’t concerned enough to do anything. (I did hear him yelling at his dog after, which can actually make your dog more aggressive because they will associate other dogs with you being angry at them.)
That man is not an anomaly. We’ve lived alongside domesticated canines for thousands of years, but we still suck at understanding their communication. Even longtime dog owners sometimes wildly misunderstand their companions. The good news is that we can develop safer and happier relationships with our pups if we brush up on their body language.
Dogs Have Many Feelings
Dogs experience a range of emotions not unlike our own. They have a “very similar neural anatomy, in terms of their brain- and neuro-chemistry, as we do,” says Vanessa Spano, a veterinarian with Behavior Vets in New York City. That’s why pups with behavioral problems are prescribed a lot of the same meds we are, including drugs with the same active ingredients as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and Xanax (but please note many human meds are not safe for dogs). Dogs can feel happy, content, excited, anxious, or panicked. They are even capable of conflicted emotions: enjoying a situation while also being apprehensive about it, adds Spano.
These emotions are often expressed subtly through bodily cues before the dog vocalizes or acts out. “Dogs literally wear their emotions on their body, so there are lots of cues about how they’re feeling, if we’re good observers,” Alexandra Horowitz, an author and dog cognition researcher at Barnard College, wrote in an email.
Reading a Dog’s Emotions Is Harder Than You Think
Trouble is, we’re not always good observers. In a recent study in the journal PLoS ONE, 92 participants watched short clips showing pairs of dogs, humans, or macaques interacting with each other. They were instructed either to categorize the interactions as neutral, playful, or aggressive, or to predict the outcome of the interaction. Participants fared the worst for dog-on-dog aggression—they failed to identify an aggressive context as well as predict an aggressive outcome. In fact, participants’ performance was worse than if they had made completely random guesses, suggesting they were biased toward assuming dogs are not acting aggressively. (That said, they fared better at identifying playful or neutral interactions).
And it doesn’t necessarily matter if the human observers are dog owners. In another study with a similar set-up, participants all fared poorly on predicting aggressive canine outcomes whether or not they reported having experience with dogs. But dog owners also reported being more confident about their (often wrong) predictions.
I’ve been an overconfident dog person before. A few years ago, I was climbing outside and someone in our group brought her sensitive border collie. She very clearly told us not to touch the dog. But at one point during the day, she was climbing and I noticed the border collie was tangled in her leash. Thinking that as a “dog person” the dog would instinctively trust me, I gently lifted her paw to untangle the leash, and without even a warning growl she chomped on my arm, leaving a bruise.
“Just having a dog is not enough,” says Juliane Bräuer, coauthor of the studies and comparative psychologist leading the DogStudies Lab at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. “Dog owners simply underestimate aggression.”
Spano sees many clients who report a similar story: their dog had a wagging tail and was pulling toward a new dog while out for a walk. After their dog reached the other dog, though, they suddenly snapped and started barking or snarling. Tail wags are often misunderstood; wagging by itself just indicates interest. In fact, Spano says fearful dogs often pull toward the source of their anxiety because they feel the need to investigate it.
Tips for Deciphering Dog Body Language
So how do we get better at body language? Experts say that part of the problem is that we tend to look at dog body parts in isolation—just their facial expression or just their tail. But looking at the whole canine offers a clearer view into their feelings. “The key is to look to [at] all parts of the body: if a dog’s ears are folded back against their head and their tail is wagging loosely and high, that’s a sign of pleasure or happiness. But the same ears with a tail that’s hanging low between the legs, wagging quickly, is probably on a nervous or worried dog,” said Horowitz.
Signs a Dog Is Happy and Relaxed
Happy dogs are loose and wiggly. Their muscles and overall posture appear relaxed and noodly, as opposed to forming a straight line from nose to tail. Their mouths are often open and their eyes are soft. Ear position meanings can vary by breed, but in general a relaxed dog’s ears are neither pointing forward alertly nor pinned back; instead, they sit in an in-between neutral position.
And while, yes, a wagging tail can be part of a contented expression, be careful. The tail should be waving loosely in sweeping arcs, and not held very high or low. Some research even suggests happy wags lean toward the right, while unsure wags trend toward the left.
Signs a Dog Is Anxious, Aggressive, or Uncertain
Before dogs cower, bark or snap, they generally show many quieter signs of discomfort. Some of the first signs of distress include yawning, lip licking, and raising a single paw. Consider these in context, though: if your dog just woke up from a nap, they are probably not yawning to cope with anxiety.
When the stress-causing trigger is closer, dogs’ bodies will become stiff and stand in a straight line from nose to tail. They may turn away from the trigger, or become fixated and stare. Their tails and hair on their back—hackles—might rise up. A low wagging or tucked tail also suggests fear.
Remember: Ask for consent
Even when facing a dog who’s wiggly and wagging, it’s best to ask for permission—from both the owner and the dog—before interacting with them. For petting a dog, Spano recommends a consent test: pet for a few seconds, then stop and see if the dog still looks receptive. If they are turning away, tense, or just don’t seem interested in you, leave them alone.
If you’re the owner of a fearful or sensitive pup, don’t be afraid to tell strangers no when they try to pet your dog or introduce them to their dog. “You know your dog the best,” says Spano. “If you feel that your dog’s not enjoying the situation, advocate for the dog—it doesn’t matter what the other person thinks.”