Why is dog body language crucial to puppy and dog socialization? In both of these photos, puppy Star is approaching me. Can you see the differences in her body language? If you can’t effectively read your puppy’s body language, your socialization efforts may be in vain.
Only in the Movies
I (Marge) have been an animal lover since I can remember. I grew up watching Lassie and Rin Tin Tin (yes, I’m that old). In these shows, the humans communicated with the dogs with words (how else would a human communicate?). Sometimes the dogs barked back. Sometimes they seemed to understand the words and respond: “Timmy is in the well. Follow me!”
Here’s the thing. Those wonderful entertaining stories set expectations for real dogs unrealistically high. Real, everyday dogs don’t solve crimes, love every person they meet, love every dog they meet, understand a variety of sentences and paragraphs, and instantly recognize all bad guys. Dogs like that exist only in the movies. That’s okay. Dogs are pretty special and unique even when they aren’t solving crimes.
Dogs Communicate through Body Language
Dogs are adept at reading our body language. Often, when we think they are responding to our verbal cues, they are responding to our physical cues or something in the environment. They’ve learned to follow our gaze better than some primates (Kirchhofer et al, 2012). They notice every detail of the environment and what we humans do in it.
So dogs are good at reading our intent and emotional state by our body language and tone of voice. How good are we are reading theirs? In our experience, not so good. We at the Puppy Socialization Project aim to change that.
It’s important to recognize when dogs are relaxed and when they are worried or anxious. Why? Because if you try to expose a puppy to new things while they are scared, it usually backfires. And because fearful dogs are more likely to bite (Borchelt, 1983).
Following are examples of relaxed and happy dogs, then dogs who are worried or anxious. We list separate items to observe, but we urge you to study these images carefully so you can also get the complete picture and learn to read your dog, and all dogs, better.
The Body Language of Relaxed and “Happy” Dogs
In the photos above, the dogs all look relaxed and “happy.” While we can’t know what they are thinking, there are some physical cues that we can observe and describe.
Weight Distributed Equally
If the dog is standing, the weight is distributed equally, as shown in the first picture.
In most of the photos above, the dogs have their mouths open. They’ve relaxed their lower jaw and it looks as if they are smiling. That’s my (Marge’s) money shot when I first work with a dog or puppy. I always point out to the owners when the dog relaxes enough to release their lower jaw. We want you to remember what those smiling faces look like. That’s the expression we want to see when our puppy experiences new things. We want him relaxed enough to release his lower jaw and engage with his handler.
You might wonder if a dog can be relaxed and have his mouth closed. He sure can. We’ve included some photos of relaxed dogs with mouths closed so you can see what that looks like and contrast them with the photos below. What else about the dogs with their mouths closed tells us they are relaxed? Their muscles are loose and soft. Look at the black and white dog in the chair. Her right front leg is so relaxed it has flopped over the side of the chair.
The pupils are the appropriate size (not dilated). The eyes look “soft” and dreamy (relaxed facial muscles) and sometimes squinty, not “hard” and staring. The last two dogs in the last row both beautifully display what we often refer to as “soft” eyes.
The ears are held in a natural position for the breed.
Facial muscles are relaxed without hard ridges.
Muscles Look Loose and Soft
Relaxed dogs are easy to spot. They don’t hold tension in their muscles. Their brow is often smooth, without ridges (with breed variation).
Besides looking at the physical aspects of the puppy or dog’s body, it’s important to look at his behavior. Puppies in the sensitive period for socialization are typically receptive to learning about and encountering new things. It’s important to observe your puppy carefully at home and away from home when he encounters new things. Does he move toward new people and objects or away? Can he take food? Can he play? Does he seek social interaction? The answers to those questions give you a lot of information about the type of support your puppy will need and when he might need extra help.
Look at the Whole Dog
The adorable puppy in the following video has never been in this location or seen that food toy before. What does his body language and behavior tell you?
The Body Language of Dogs That Are Worried, Fearful or Anxious
Weight Shifted Back or Away
Relaxed dogs typically stand with their weight distributed equally. Dogs that are worried, fearful, or anxious often shift their weight away from the thing that worries them. I’m sure many people can recognize when a dog is cowering. Can you recognize the physical pieces of what we label as cowering? The weight is often shifted back, the topline is rounded or curved, and the tail is often held low and the joints are often bent. It almost looks as if the dog is trying to make himself look smaller. You can see all those things in the first and second pictures above. The dog in the second photo has his tail tucked so much it’s against his belly.
Generally speaking, when a dog is worried, he clamps his mouth shut. It’s more than just closed. It’s often held tightly shut—so much that you can see the tense muscles on his face. They look like little ridges. Clamped shut, or open with stress panting or lip licking. The little white lab mix puppy shows facial ridges to the extreme. Do you notice the facial ridges on some of the other dogs above?
If the mouth is open, the dog may be stress panting. This is not like a relaxed, deep pant from a dog that’s just been playing fetch. It is short, shallow, and rapid. The bloodhound with his tongue out is stress panting in that photo. Notice how his tongue is straight out, not relaxed, and flopped over to the side. Sometimes the mouth is open to yawn or flick the nose. But that looks very different from the open mouths above.
The pupils may be dilated. The last photo in the first column shows a dog with dilated pupils. The whites of the dog’s eyes may be showing. This is sometimes referred to as whale eye or half moon eye (the white showing looks like a sliver of the moon.
The ears are often held to the side or back. See the last photo on the bottom right. That dog is scared of a thunderstorm.
We discussed facial muscles in the category of “Mouth.” Look for ridges, tensions, and tight muscles.
Muscles Look Hard and Tense
The muscles often look hard and tense. The body is often preparing to take action. The dog might try and evade the scary thing (flight) or make it go away (fight). The muscles look hard and tense because they are ready for action.
Again, let’s not just look at body parts. What is the dog showing us with his behavior?
- Acts sleepy or is yawning. We’re talking about out-of-context behavior here. If your dog is lying in his bed, gets up, turns three circles, lies back down and yawns, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stressed or worried. But if your dog or puppy is meeting a new person and yawns when they interact with him, he may be worried. Look at the whole dog and the rest of his behavior.
- Suddenly won’t eat. If you have a healthy dog who is hungry and taking treats, and he suddenly stops taking treats, he may be worried by something in the environment. Let’s say you have your puppy in the front yard and you notice a child on a bicycle four houses down. You think, “Wonderful. My puppy’s never seen a bicycle before. This is a great socialization opportunity!” Your puppy is healthy and hungry. You watch your puppy and he notices the bicycle four houses away and you begin feeding him yummy tidbits. He watches the bicycle and eats the food. The bike is now three houses away and your puppy is watching intently and still eating the food. Then the bike is two houses away and suddenly your puppy won’t eat the food anymore. There’s a good chance your puppy is too worried to eat. What else is his body doing? Is his weight shifted away? Is he frozen in place? Or is he moving towards the bike with relaxed body language? We have to look at the body language and behavior.
- Moving away. When a puppy moves away from a person or thing, that’s a clear message. Allow your puppy or dog to move away from things that frighten him. He will not get “get used to it” just because we want him to. And, we could make him more afraid by forcing him to be around things that scare him (spiders, anyone?).
- Hypervigilant. A dog that is hypervigilant is constantly on alert and looking around. It sometimes appears as if the dog is scanning the environment for a scary thing.
- Pacing. This is very similar to when people pace when they are worried about something. Constant motion, without interacting with the environment.
The dog in the video in the next section displays some of these behaviors. What else tells you she is worried about this situation?
Look at the Whole Dog
This adorable puppy is in a new location and seeing chickens for the first time. What about her behavior tells you she is uncomfortable? Contrast this puppy’s behavior in a new environment encountering something new with the chocolate lab puppy in the “Look at the Whole Dog” section above.
Conclusion and Homework
It’s hard to explain all the nuances of canine body language in one post. And we’ve thrown a lot of information at you! Take some time to look at the photos and videos above. Look at some of the resources we link to below. Once you start noticing canine body language, it gets easier. Our book, Puppy Socialization: What It Is and How to Do It, has an entire chapter dedicated to canine body language and it links to many more videos that are exclusive to the book. Understanding dog body language is that critical to your puppy socialization success.
Now, we want you to look at some photos you have of your puppy. You know you probably already have a bunch on your phone. Look at them one at a time and write down what you see. Then, start observing your puppy in real time. Have fun learning what your dog is saying!
Borchelt, P. L. (1983). Aggressive behavior of dogs kept as companion animals: Classification and influence of sex, reproductive status and breed. Applied Animal Ethology, 10(1–2), 45–61.
Kirchhofer, K. C., Zimmermann, F., Kaminski, J., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Dogs (Canis familiaris), but not chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), understand imperative pointing. PloS one, 7(2), e30913.
Copyright 2021 Marge Rogers and Eileen Anderson