How do I know what my dog is feeling?
Updated: Mar 14, 2022
Many pet parents (myself included) talk to their fur babies. We tell them that they’re a good dog, and that we love them. Their response hopefully assures us that they’re happy, and they love us too, but without words, how do dogs communicate with us, and how do we know what our canine companions really feel?
Just like people, dogs express much of what they’re feeling through body language. Whether your dog is happy, anxious, or not feeling their best, can be seen in their posture, movements, and even their fur.
A loose body, relaxed face and mouth, and a raised or neutral tail lets you know your best bud is quite content. Check out your dog’s eyes in a relaxed moment. You’ll notice a soft gaze instead of a bright look or hard stare.
Woohoo! Let’s Play!
Whether greeting you after a long day at work (or a two minute bathroom break), or jumping into playtime with some canine friends, your pup’s joyful excitement is hard to miss. Play bows (think downward dog with a wagging tail) and bouncy, popping movements are a clear invitation to have some fun. For some dogs, the fur along their spine and hips will stand on end. While raised fur like this (aka showing hackles) can sometimes raise an alarm, it doesn’t always mean a dog is feeling threatened, or is threatening to attack. Is your pup’s body still loose and wiggly? Is their mouth loose or open in a doggy smile? If yes, they are likely in high spirits and those hackles are simply a sign of excitement.
Not my jam
Any pet parent has likely seen their dog express dislike in some form. In situations like bath time or a trip to the vet, our pets tell us very clearly they’re not comfortable. The tail tucks, the ears go back, their body trembles, and they will try to slink away, or simply pull very hard in the opposite direction. Other clues that your dog is nervous are lip licking, yawning, turning their head away, or giving the side-eye.
We might assume that as social creatures, dogs enjoy being around other people and dogs, but if you notice some of this more subtle body language from your dog when people visit, or when you take your dog to the dog park, they might be telling you they’d rather skip out on social time.
Behaviors that might be seen as signs of aggression in dogs can actually be your dog telling you that a thing, person, or dog is too close for comfort. Growling, snapping, or lunging might seem to come out of nowhere, but there could have been other, quieter signals your dog was giving first. In addition to the signs described above, a tight, pursed mouth, a tense body, and a hard stare are warnings that your dog’s fear or tension is escalating (sometimes described as a ladder of aggression). At this point, it’s best to create some space between your dog and whatever is triggering their reaction, and reassure them with a happy voice and a tasty treat if you have one handy.
Under the weather
One of the biggest challenges of being a pet parent is seeing your dog in pain. Dogs do hide their physical discomfort well, so it can be tricky knowing when they’re not feeling one hundred percent. Your dog might seek more snuggles for comfort, or instead find a quiet, secluded spot to be alone. Usually a low appetite and more frequent naps or lethargic behavior let us know that something is not quite right, and it could be time to see a vet.
Of course we want what’s best for our furry companions, and part of figuring that out is learning to listen with our eyes when our dogs speak to us. For a fun, illustrated guide to dog body language, you can check out Doggie Language by Lili Chin. Want deeper insight into what your dog is feeling? Book an animal communication session here.