ForPaws Blog

How Good are you at Reading Dog Body Language? Pt 1

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‘He’s fine’!  ‘She’s just being friendly’!  ‘It’s okay, his tail’s wagging’!  ‘She wouldn’t hurt a fly’! 

Four typical phrases that normally guarantee I will need to force a smile in the next few seconds.  Why?  These are the sorts of comments are very often at complete odds with the overall body language of the dog.  It may come as a surprise to many, but for a nation of dog lovers we are not as good at working out if our dogs really are ‘fine’.  

For instance, do you know that a dog with a wagging tail is not necessarily the sign of a happy dog?  A tail wagging stiffly in a very upright position (looking similar to you waggling your index finger from side to side without moving your hand or wrist) means you should be cautious, the dog is likely feeling threatened. 

Why is important to understand when a dog is uncomfortable?  The answer is in another question - how many times have you heard or read about an incident involving a dog that stated the dog acted without warning’?  Or that the owners are shocked because the dog has always been ‘fine’ in situations like this before?  Very often the warning signs were there, but they were missed or misunderstood because owners just don’t know what to look for.

Rather than simply list out all the signs of a happy or uncomfortable dog, I am going to post up pictures from my archives of dog photos (and the odd video) that show different body languages and pick out different aspects in each photo.  Some will be ‘happy’ photos, some a little less so.  Education is one of the key ways that we can prevent bites and enhance the relationship between dog and owner to improve welfare, so this new blog series is my contribution to this aim.  

I must emphasise two points before we start: 

  1. I didn’t set up these photos for the purpose of this blog or intentionally stress dogs just to take these photos.  Our dogs’ feelings and emotions are in as much flux as our own (think how often your own emotions and feelings fluctuate in a very short space of time!) and as I often take many photos out on walks I occasionally capture moment where the dog is less comfortable.  They are a snapshot of the many different emotions I’ve captured over the past few years.
  2. Whilst photos are useful in learning to understand the signs of discomfort and the different factors to look out for, all dogs (and many breeds!) are different.  Very often signs that indicate stress in one moment, indicate a different emotion in another.  There is no one single indicator for a happy/sad/fearful dog, context is key.  So rather than always give you the situation that the photo was taken in - sometimes I'll just suggest what could be happening. 

So here are a few photos to get us started, if you have any questions on any of these photos, then please post comments below…


This is Bailey - a playful boy who loves nothing better than running around and exploring.  If you are thinking there's nothing uncomfortable in this photo, I'd agree with you, however, do you notice the calm but focused gaze on something to the right?  The forward lean to his body?  I would say that at this point he has noticed something that has peaked his interest.  This could be for better or worse, he hasn't really decided yet!  Knowing Bailey, this is likely either a squirrel to chase, or another dog to go and greet, but for this fleeting moment he is alert and monitoring and his next move is likely to be that he will move forward to investigate further (or chase).  Why is this useful to know?  If you have a dog that is a chaser, or an overenthusiastic greeter, or perhaps even one who has reacted badly to whatever he is looking at before, this is the point to get your dog's attention and redirect him or her onto something else, or perhaps pop him or her onlead.  If your dog reacts quickly, you may only have a split second to do this, so being clued up as to when your dog has spotted something interesting is critical!

Paddy Surprised

This is a great photo of Paddy, another dog I walk.  Hands up who may have said that he is happy?!  I wouldn't blame you if you did, we are often told that a panting dog is a happy dog.  I'm not sure why exactly, maybe because dogs who have a great time running around get hot and pant.  But the truth is that dogs pant because they are hot and need to cool down (sometimes called heat stress) or because they are stressed, fearful or uncomfortable.  Above, Paddy is panting quite excessively, note the wrinkles around his mouth from him drawing back his lips to allow even more air in, typically seen in hot or stressed dogs.  Two other points to note here are that the whites of Paddy's eyes are showing, this is called 'whale eye' and it usually happens when a dog is surprised, extremely excited or fearful, and also that Paddy's ears are held back and clamped tight to his head, often a sign of discomfort or fear.  

So in this photo, Paddy is panting excessively, showing whale eye and has his ears held back tight.  What's going on?  Well he could be extremely stressed by something he's seen off to the righthand side, but I would expect if this was the case he would be stood and his entire body facing that way, rather than sat.  Actually, what has happened here was that Paddy was overly hot from a recent offlead jaunt in the summer sun and we were sat in the shade to cool off, when one of my other dogs came charging in to see us and Paddy was briefly surprised when he noted the approach.  Seconds later, Paddy's ears and eyes relaxed and he continued to pant heavily till he cooled down.  Still this is a brilliant example of signs that are often overlooked in a stressed dog.  Panting can be misinterpreted as happy - but if your dog is panting and he has no reason to be hot, then this is a sign to be careful.  He could be ill and have a temperature (sick dogs may act unusually) or he could be distressed and need your help to calm down.  Whale eye and ears pulled back can be fleeting and subtle, but observant and careful owners will see the signs and check whether they need to intervene to help their dog.

Relaxed Lola

Last photo for today!  What's wrong with this photo?  Nothing!  I thought it was good to note a relaxed dog.  This is Lola, a very calm and friendly girl who loves her walks.  Note her soft eyes, complete lack of tension around the eyes, ears and mouth, which is hanging lightly open in a light pant after running around in the cool autumn air.  Everything about her is relaxed.  Contrast that to the photo of Paddy above and you can see the difference between their panting.  Understanding the signs that show your dog is relaxed is one of the best ways to then realise when they aren't.

I hope you've found this blog interesting, don't forget if you have any questions or comments, pop them in the comments below!  I promise I'll post more photos soon.

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