Reading and understanding your dog's body language

Dogs are great communicators, and they show us how they feel in many ways. Whether it's through their body posture, facial expressions, or the noises they make, they use different signs to let us know what they need. By paying attention to these signals, you can make sure your furry friend is happy and healthy and build a strong bond with them.


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How do dogs communicate?

Your dog's body language can show when they're happy and want you to interact or play with them. Similarly, if they feel uncomfortable or anxious, they’ll signal that they want you to give them more space or stop what you're doing. Some signs of anxiety or fear can be subtle, so by learning to spot these, you can avoid situations that may make your dog feel anxious or stressed. 

Remember - all dogs are different! Your dog's age, breed, personality, and situation all affect how they behave.

How to tell if your dog is relaxed

When your dog feels relaxed, you might notice that your dog’s eyes look 'soft' or droopy. A relaxed dog’s face and body will be completely tension-free. Their tail might gently wag, and their ears will be upright or in a neutral position (not flat against their head). You might even see their tongue hanging out to the side! And when you talk to them, they might cock their head. 

How to tell if your dog is happy

When your dog feels happy, they'll show signs similar to when they're relaxed, but their tail will wag even more! If they want to play, they might lower the front half of their body while raising their bottom in the air - this is called a 'play bow'. Sometimes this might be accompanied by a playful bark or growl that sounds high-pitched and full of excitement!

How to tell if your dog is uncomfortable, anxious, or scared

Anxious dogs, or those who are uncomfortable or fearful, can look similar when relaxed, so it can be harder to spot the signs. We've highlighted the three main stages of these types of behaviour to help you spot the body language signals early and take action to protect your dog:

What to do if your dog shows distressed or aggressive behaviour

If your dog shows signs of distress or aggression, addressing the issue as soon as possible is essential to keep your dog and those around them safe and happy. Here are some helpful steps you can take:

  1. Create a safe environment: Create a safe and comfortable environment for your dog. This might involve using barriers or gates to limit their access to certain areas and provide a calm, quiet space for them to relax.
  2. Use positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to shape behaviour in your dog. By reinforcing desired behaviour with rewards such as treats, praise, or toys, you can encourage your dog to repeat the behaviour you want to see more of.
  3. Avoid punishment: Punishment, such as shouting or physical force, can worsen the behaviour of a distressed or aggressive dog. Instead, focus on positive reinforcement and training to encourage good behaviour.
  4. Keep training sessions short: Dog training sessions should be kept short and positive so that your dog doesn't become overwhelmed. If your dog struggles to understand a new cue, it's okay to take a break and try again later.

With a little patience and positive reinforcement, you can help your dog feel happy and secure in no time! However, if your dog's behaviour continues to cause concern, it's a good idea to seek the help of a professional, such as a qualified behaviourist. They can help identify the root cause of the behaviour and provide guidance on how to address it.

The most common body language signs and what they mean

How to recognise causes of behaviour

When understanding your dog's behaviour and body language, it's important to consider the specific situation and what's normal for your dog. The behaviour shown by your dog when they feel uncomfortable can look similar to when they're relaxed – for example, rolling onto their back could mean your dog is telling you that they're uncomfortable or trying to diffuse a situation, not that they would like a belly rub.
 
By understanding the context of your dog's behaviour, you can choose how to respond and what to do if the situation happens again. 

Factors to consider when interpreting your dog's behaviour

Whilst looking out for the behaviours above will help you understand what your dog is feeling, here are some factors to bear in mind: 

Context

It's essential to consider the specific situation and what's normal for your dog when reading their body language. What might be relaxed behaviour in a home environment can mean something different in a public setting.

Age

Puppies and older dogs will behave very differently due to their stage of development and age-related changes. Puppies are likely to be more energetic and playful, while older dogs tend to be calmer.

Personality 

Just like people, dogs have their own personalities that influence their behaviour. Some dogs may be more outgoing and confident, while others may be more timid and anxious.

Breed

Different dog breeds can have certain behaviours due to selective breeding. For example, herding breeds, such as sheepdogs, may like to herd other animals. However, this does not mean all dogs of a breed will show the same behaviour, as environment, learning and individual personality will also affect how they behave. 

What to do if you're concerned about your guide dog’s behaviour

If your guide dog is showing signs of fear, anxiety or discomfort that are causing concern, please contact your Dog Health and Wellbeing Specialist. Please contact the emergency line on 0345 143 0217 if anything happens out of office hours. 

If you have any general queries on your guide dog puppy or guide dog’s behaviour, please feel free to contact your Puppy Development Advisor, Guide Dog Mobility Specialist or Dog Health and Wellbeing Specialist - they’re here to help.


Reviewed by: Tim Stafford, Director of Canine Affairs on 22 May 2024

Guide Dogs is committed to the highest standards of dog welfare, operating on the knowledge that the welfare of our dogs is inseparable from the wellbeing of our service users. Our staff, volunteers, and service users, undergo comprehensive training in dog care and welfare, to ensure close adherence to our key welfare principles. 

We create educational and informative content to share our 90-plus years’ worth of canine expertise. This content is periodically reviewed as we continue to embrace new knowledge and scientific insights to improve how we breed, raise, train, and partner our dogs.

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