What Your Dog Is Trying to Tell You

Our dogs are speaking to us all the time—we just have to learn to listen to canine body language.
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The closest we can get to a talking dog is by teaching them to "speak" on command, but our dogs actually do have their own way of talking to us. It just happens to be a near-silent form of visual communication. From how they adjust their eyelids to how fast they wag their tails, almost every action your pooch takes says something about their thoughts and emotions. We just have to learn how to translate canine body language. With a little effort, you’ll be a dog whisperer before you know it.

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Mouth

Can dogs smile? We've all seen those adorable photos of pups seemingly grinning, but it is generally accepted that a genuine smile is not within their capability. According to Dr. Gary Weitzman, DVM, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society, and author of Complete Guide to Pet Health, Behavior, and Happiness, “Dogs can’t smile like we do, but they may give the appearance of smiling. That may be because they have a unique ability to read our facial expressions and relate to us. And they learn to respond in ways that please us.” Although there is a such thing as a “submissive grin,” an expression of appeasement, what we usually perceive as smiling is really just panting from everyday excitement. Instead, a relaxed mouth is one way for canines to show they’re content. Another mouth movement that is not always what it seems is yawning. According to The American Kennel Club, yawning doesn’t invariably coincide with tiredness or boredom; in fact, it can indicate stress, especially if there’s tension going on in the home.

Eyes

Turns out, there’s truth behind the "puppy dog eyes" phrase. “Puppy dog eyes are a dog’s response to human attention,” says Dr. Weitzman. “When they look up at us with those big, irresistible eyes, they’re really just trying to read our facial expressions to connect with us. Like ‘smiling,’ this is a behavior that dogs reserve just for humans.” Dog-to-human communication really is a language of its own. On the contrary, slight squinting is considered by professional dog trainer Steffi Trott to be a “soft eyes” look: “It can mean that your dog is very comfortable cuddling with you and is closing them partially both in an enjoyment and an attempt to look small and non-threatening.” Looking closer at the eye itself, the ASPCA advises to focus on the white part (called the sclera) while observing the overall direction and level of concentration of your dog’s gaze. If their eyes are rounder and showing a lot of white, which is known as a “whale eye,” odds are they're feeling some anxiety.

Ears

Whether they have large ears that are normally flopped over or have pointy and triangle-shaped ones, all canines can alter the position of the base of their ears. “Pricked ears that are straight up mean that a dog is alert,” says Dr. Weitzman. “Maybe a noise or movement caught her attention. When her ears rotate or flick back and forth, she may be trying to figure something out or decide how she feels about a certain situation.” When that curiosity edges into fear and nervousness, the ears become pinned back against her head. Not all ear movements indicate curiosity or worry though: "The best look is the one that means the most to us: soft ears lying flat against the sides of the head—that must mean they love us.” You might also recognize that ears-laying-flat look when you come home to a living room full of loose stuffing and a chewed-up pillowcase: Your dog loves you but also wants to apologize.

Hair

We might all have bad hair days, but dogs can communicate that they are having a bad day through their hair. “A dog’s coat goes through normal cycles, from regular growth patterns to heavy shedding periods,” says Dr. Weitzman. “Such variations could be part of regular cyclical patterns, but compared against your pet’s normal, it can tell a story.” Ask yourself: “Is your dog’s coat shiny or dull? Thick or thin? Is it falling out or changing color?” Since hair is also an indicator of the skin beneath, the largest organ in the body, it can even show the canine equivalent of goosebumps, called “raised hackles.” Dog trainer Steffi Trott advises that “Depending on just how stressed the dog is, his hair might stand up only between his shoulder blades—or all the way down his back and even on his tail! If your dog raises his hackles, find out what's bothering him and how you can help him feel more comfortable.” And, while you probably know dogs can't sweat like us, they can sweat through their paws if they are particularly bothered.

Tail

A wagging tail doesn’t always necessarily mean a happy dog. According to American Veterinarian, any tail movement at all is simply a side effect of overall arousal. The position of the tail and the speed of the wag convey very different messages about your pup’s state of mind. “Of course, a wagging tail means your dog is happy, but only if it’s a loose tail wag,” says Dr. Weitzman. “If a dog’s tail is stiff and wagging, it actually indicates that they are worried or anxious. A tail tucked between the legs indicates the dog is scared or nervous. The tail can be a handshake, as long as you know how to decipher it.” We all know that a tail between the legs is a telltale sign of fear, but a tail hanging straight down can express a lesser level of anxiety and even appeasement. When it comes to speed, the faster the wag, the higher the state of excitement. In other words, a slow-wagging tail can translate to comfort and contentment.

The Takeaway

To get the big picture, look at all these elements together, like letters that make up the words our dogs are trying to say. And it goes both ways: We can read their body language and they can read ours. As they get to know us, our furry friends naturally become experts at interpreting our gestures, body posture, and facial expressions, and it would only strengthen our relationship with our pups to learn to do the same for them. While we may never be able to have full-on conversations with our pets, for now at least you can better understand your canine companion.