Dogs are constantly communicating with us telling us how they feel. We can use this information to better understand them and their state of mind in any moment. Dogs are experts at reading human body language so it is time to get up to par!
Three main stress signals given off by dogs can alert or warn you. The dog gives these signals to communicate that it needs space or distance from that person, animal or thing it is confronted with. Using this information to know when a dog is becoming stressed can be used to help him. You can respond by backing away, walking him or her away from the ‘scary’ thing, or to take a break from grooming or any stressful event.
Most people can see and read dog body language very well. We are quite good at this with dogs that are not ours and even non-pet owners can read canine body language well. The breakdown in communication is what these signals mean and translate to in human words. The dog’s 3 main stress signals will be explained and soon you will be translating dog body language like a pro!
1. Lip Lick
What it looks like: dog licking his lips. It can be deceptive to us because it is often interpreted as the dog being hungry or thirsty. The dog is telling you he is getting stressed, unless of course you are holding a dish of kibble! Stopping direct eye contact by looking away will communicate back that you acknowledge his stress and are showing no threat. If you were head on with the dog, turn slightly to the side as this is a less threatening posture.
2. Look Away
What it looks like: the dog turns his entire head to the side, looking away from you or the ‘scary’ person. Often accompanied by the Lip Lick, the Look Away is a classic canine communication signal. Just because they are looking away does not mean they cannot see you. The dog has wider vision than us and this allows him to see us even better. Often you can catch the eyes darting back towards you as the head remains looking away. A socially appropriate response is to reciprocate the behavior, so go ahead and offer a look away in return. You cannot see the dog as well from the side, so do not look away as far as to having the dog out of your sight. Rather, glance away or down, tilting and relaxing your head and neck muscles. Soften and relax your gaze.
3. Paw Raise
What it looks like: giving paw. Look for a Paw Raise in the next full body photo of a dog you see. Cameras are close to dogs’ faces often making then nervous give a Paw Raise. The dog is not asking you to take his paw! This would make him more uncomfortable. To show the dog you recognize and understand that he is stressed you can shift your weight to one leg, take a lazy or slouched posture, and Look Away.
Next time you are watching your dogs play or greet others count how many Lip Licks, Look Aways, and Paw Raises your dog gives. After some practice watching two dogs play, notice which dog gives the stress signal first and if the other dogs mirrors or reciprocates the communication signal. Now that is a glimpse into the complex social world of our domestic canine companions! Now let’s go train!
Katie Weibel, Master Dog Trainer. Providing training for companion, service and working dogs, sharing knowledge and expertise.