Body Language: What is your puppy saying?

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It is important to know what your puppy is saying with body language so that you can understand what they are feeling in a situation. Puppies use body language to communicate to other dogs. During socialization, it is very important to watch for signals that the puppies are uncomfortable or scared so that you can allow your puppy to approach the new experience more slowly. Learning canine body language will enable you to better understand your dog throughout life. Being able to read your dog can help identify when he or she is fearful, aroused, or wanting to play.

It is not always easy to read your dog's body language because it can change quickly and not all dogs show the same movements or signs. When looking at your dog’s body language, look at both the situation and your dog’s body position, tail and ear positions, and hair erection.  Look at facial features (showing of teeth, eye position and dilation, ear position) and listen for vocalization (growls, whines or whimpers).

Calming Signals

Calming signals are subtle body cues used by dogs to calm themselves (as well as other dogs) in stressful or exciting situations. Reinforcing calming signals as they appear encourages your dog to self- manage stress. Calming signals are learned at an early age during socialization. Dogs who have not been socialized often do not understand or display calming signals. Below are some calming signals to watch for:

Shake-off - It is a whole-body shake, starting with the head and going all the way to the tail. You may see shake-offs during stressful situations but also after the situation has resolved. Dogs use shake-offs frequently. When you see this, tell the dog "good shake off". This reinforces that you understand they are nervous, stressed, or conflicted and that they do not need to worry.

Head turning/look-away - This is often a clearly visible turn of the head which may last for one to several seconds. It can also be a smaller movement or manifest in just looking into a different direction. This is a "cut off" cue with which the dog is signaling they do not want to have a conflict.

Sneezing - Sneezing is a tension release that is usually associated with a positive experience, for example, before going out to play or getting a treat.

Turning away - Turning away is more than just a turn of the head.  The nervous dog will turn so that his or her side or back is facing the cause of the nervousness.

Lip lick - A lip lick is a quick flick of tongue or nose lick that signals that the dog is "conflicted" or is anticipating something but is unsure how he feels about it. It can be a way the dog releases tension.

Play bow - A quick play bow is likely an invitation to play.  A play bow in slow motion may be a calming signal.

Yawning - Occasionally a dog may yawn because they are tired. Most of the time, however, yawning is used as a calming signal. A yawn is a great tension release for a situation in which they are unsure or conflicted.

Sitting/lying down - A dog often sits or lies down to calm other dogs.
 
Sniffing - Sniffing as calming signal or displacement behavior can be difficult to distinguish from sniffing for scents. Watch for sniffing when another dog approaches or suddenly appears.

Splitting up/Go Between - A dog may move in between two parties who are showing signs of tension in order to prevent conflict.

Scratching/grooming - Excessive scratching or grooming can be used by dogs as calming or distracting behaviors in stressful situations.

People can ease their dog's stress by using calming signals such as the "Go Between", the "Yawn", the "Look Away", and "Lip Licking".

Communication is a vital part of a relationship with your dog. Unfortunately, dogs are often taught by our reactions to communicate only happiness towards other dogs and people.  Throughout history, some breeds have also been bred to suppress subtle communications or warning signals. These breeds were bred to fight. Good fighting dogs show little sign or warning before engaging in fight. Dogs that are willing to use escalating signs of aggression are actually good in that they are trying to avoid conflict. When dogs communicate these signs, they give us warnings before biting. It is our responsibility to recognize these signs so we do not push the dog over threshold and give them no other choice than biting. Dogs with a high bite threshold will give many signs before actually biting. Dogs that have been punished for using “warning words" or showing the below signs will have a lower bite threshold and go from being stressed to biting much quicker and without giving any warning signs. Remember that warning signs are good. Do not scold or punish the warning signs, but remove the puppy form the situation and introduce the puppy more slowly.

Freeze - When the dog stops moving and freezes.
Hard Eye - A glassy eye stare, accompanying a freeze.
Growl - A low, steady rumble.
Snarl - Exposing teeth and retracting lips. There are some dogs that will "smile". Look at the whole body language of dog to tell the difference between a snarl and smile; smiling dogs are relaxed, where as a snarling dog is more tense.
Raised Lip - Raising the lip on one side of the mouth; can show a little bit of teeth.
Snapping - An air-bite that the dog deliberately misses.
.... There are many more of these warning signs.

If you see any of these signs in your puppy, make sure to identify the source of the stress and remove the puppy from the situation. If the source of stress will be unavoidable in the future, for example nail trims, vet visits or meeting new people or dogs, please talk to us or a certified professional dog trainer, CPDT-KA (see the recommended trainer list located in our trainer section) for tips on how to accustom your puppy slowly to the respective activity.

Did you know that dogs have a flight distance of 7 feet? Flight distance is the equivalence of the person's personal space. When people, other dogs or stressful situations are in this flight space, dogs can be more aroused, nervous, stressed, and reactive. When entering a dog's personal space whether it is to greet the dog or to approach with your dog on a walk, DO NOT approach head on, rather approach in a C shaped semi-circle. Have you ever noticed dogs approach each other off leash in the C formation?