Lost in Translation

So the other day I was watching a funny classic on tv, National Lampoon’s European Vacation. There’s a scene where the Griswold’s were in Paris and ordering food from their waiter (at least trying to). So many words spoken were lost in the translation. This made me think of the communications between people and their dogs. And just like that scene from the movie, so many things get lost in the translation! Not so much from our dogs understanding us, but rather from people understanding their dog’s language.

Dogs are experts at reading human body language! The very moment we walk into a room a dog can tell right away based upon our facial expressions, body posture and even our breathing, what kind of “mood” we are in. That’s one of the reasons why I stress the importance of keeping training sessions with your dog very positive and as stress free as possible as this will set you both up for success!

The following list takes a look at some of a dog’s body parts and what to look for to better be able to predict what imminent behaviors a dog is most likely to exhibit. Keep in mind that these are genaric descriptions and there are many variations among the various breeds of dogs. For example, a lot of northern breeds such as Spitz type dogs will tend to have a higher tail set while sighthounds such as the Greyhound and the Whippet will have a low tail set. This is not an extensive list, but rather some of the basics to help make you better informed on your dog’s body language and what it all means.

Tail: Generally, the more higher the tail is, the more confident the dog is. A fearful or submissive dog will have their tail tucked under. A happy dog will wag its tail and the more excited, the faster it may wag. Caution however should be exercised because a wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean a happy dog. A submissive or fearful dog may wag its tail in a tight and fast arc. An aggressive dog will often wag its tail rapidly. It’s possible that one of the reasons a dog wags its tail in the high position is to help disperse the rich amount of scents from the rear area, which will tell another dog a vast amount of information. Compare this to a submissive or fearful dog who would rather go unnoticed and its tail is tucked under to help prevent giving off any scents while also appearing small and preferring to go unnoticed. There is also some research that theorizes that you can actually tell the emotion of a dog from the direction it wags its tail. “Studies show that dogs wag their tails to the right when they are happy and to the left when they are frightened.” (“Why Do Dogs,” 2012).

Ears: A relaxed dog will have its ears in its natural position. An alert dog will have their ears directed to the area that they are focused on. An aggressive dog will do anything to make them appear as large as they can be and this includes having their ears  up and forward. A fearful or submissive dog will often have their ears flattened in an attempt to appear smaller and less of a threat.

Eyes: A fearful dog will often have their eyes appear larger. Often the pupils will be dilated also. Fear is necessary for survival and by having enlarged eyes and dilated pupils the dog is better able to see more of its surrounding environment. When you see the whites of an eye (whale eye) in a fearful dog it’s because their head is slightly turned but their focus is maintained on the fearful stimulus so that it can be aware where that stimulus is at all times. (Have you ever been able to take your eyes off that spider in the corner?) Never stare at a fearful, aggressive or any dog that you’ve never met before. Staring in dog language is often interpreted as a direct challenge. That’s not to say that you can’t stare at your own companion dog. The bond between you two erases that possibility.

Mouth: A calm and relaxed dog will usually have an opened mouth with a gentle pant or their mouth may be closed while they breathe through their nose gently. Right before going into a “fight or flight” situation a dog will often freeze first. The freeze is the moment when they are deciding if they should fight or take flight and the freeze last only up to a few seconds. This is the brief time that a dog will assess its current situation. During the freeze the dog’s mouth will close, if it wasn’t already closed. A dog’s most dominant sensory system is its sense of smell. One possibility a dog will close its mouth during the freeze is to allow more breathed in air to be analyzed by that sensory system to better ascertain their surrounding environment. If they decide that fight or flight is not necessary and everything is ok, then they will go back to their previous mouth position. A fearful dog may bare its teeth when feeling threatened and the commissures will be pulled back to expose their molars while an aggressive dog will tend to have an agonistic pucker and only be exposing its front canines. The commissures on an aggressive dog are pushed forward and will be in a “C” shape. A stressed dog will often exhibit cut-off signals, which can include lip licking and shaking off.

Some other indications to look for in a fearful dog include: dandruffy skin, puffed flews (area above the lips), blowing or shedding fur, piloerection (raised fur), blinking, sweaty paw pads, yawning, excessive panting, drooling and trembling.

It’s important to remember that while examining the parts of a dog’s body language to ascertain what it may be feeling to not just focus on one body part, but instead to look at the dog’s body language as a whole.


Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?. (2012, May 15th). Retrieved from http://www.animalplanet.com/pets/why-do-dogs-wag-their-tails/


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