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Dog's body language speaks loud and clear

Original Publication Date: January 18, 2016
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

A dog cannot tell us in words whether he is feeling happy or not. Instead, he uses body language or dog talk to convey his emotions and his intent for action. Some "words" in a dog's body language vocabulary can have more than one meaning, so it is necessary to read the entire body to understand what he is saying.

The dog uses his posture, eyes, ears, mouth, hair and tail in a nonverbal communication system that speaks volumes. The different parts of his anatomy move to form syllables in body language words that convey a unified message.

Your dog can tell you whether he is happy, angry, sad, nervous or fearful.

His stance and attitude also reflect his intent for action.

The general posture of a dog says a lot. You will immediately know if his attitude is one of relaxed confidence, aggressive confrontation or fearful and nervous cowering and hunching. You must also note the messages his eyes, ears, mouth, hair and tail are sending.

A happy dog exhibits a relaxed posture, with his weight evenly balanced on all four feet. His muscles are relaxed, his ears are held in a normal position and his mouth is closed or slightly open.

The picture probably includes a tail wagging side to side or in a circular motion. He may bounce around inviting you to play. A happy dog is comfortable with his surroundings. He is calm and content.

According to animal behaviorists, a dog that is not happy with his situation will adopt a fight, flight or avoidance mode. In other words, he will advance toward, retreat from or avoid the situation that confronts him.

An angry dog assumes the fight posture. He demonstrates offensive aggression by trying to look as large and intimidating as he can. He holds his head high, his ears up and his tail raised and rigid as he stares directly at the animal or person confronting him.

Dog's body language speaks loud and clear Lily is relaxed and ready to play
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He may raise his hackles, bare his teeth, and growl, snarl or bark in low, threatening tones.

An angry, aggressive dog will stand ready to fight. He will lunge toward or charge his challenger if necessary.

A fearful, shy or nervous dog will adopt the flight or avoidance mode when confronted with a disturbing situation. He will cower or hunch in an attempt to appear as small as possible. A lowered head with ears down, eyes wide and a tail tucked between his legs complement the behavior. He is ready to take flight and retreat from the situation or avoid it altogether.

The vocabulary of a dog may not have words, but his body language can speak volumes. A pet parent who is in tune with a dog knows when he is happy, angry, nervous, fearful or sad.

How accurately can you read your dog's body language?

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at