Dogs give signals about how they are feeling all the time, they use their body to communicate, and when you try to interpret what they are saying it is important that you look at the context and their whole body.
Being able to interpret how your dog is feeling will help with responding to them appropriately and preventing displays of aggression. Many people say ‘the dog just bit out of nowhere’ when in fact dogs give plenty of warning before escalating their behaviour to overt displays such as biting. If you are able to pick up on these more subtle cues you will be able to prevent injury to you, other people, your dog, or someone else’s dog.
A relaxed dog, such as the ones below, will have fluid movement of their body, the tail may be either held in a neutral position or swaying from side to side. These dogs both have ‘soft’ eyes and their tongues and mouths are relaxed. These dogs look content and happily tired.
By contrast, these dogs (below) look tense. Their ears are back, and both have quite ‘hard eyes’ with the whites showing. The dog on the left has his head facing in an awkward position to the rest of the body which is leaning away from the hand, suggesting stiffness in movement. His mouth is closed and the lips are tightly drawn forward. The lead looks tight, so the dog may also be feeling trapped in this situation. The yawn on the right is a tense yawn, the tongue is behind the teeth and the edges of the mouth are pursed and the eyes are ‘hard’.
Here are more examples (below) of tense dogs, their lips are tight, and both are tongue flicking (a common stress signal) and are trying to create distance by leaning away from the children. Both dogs look stiff and are trapped, the one on the left is chained, and the one on the right is being restrained. These pictures shows how bites occur seemingly out of nowhere. Unless you really understand canine body language you may not know these dogs are stressed. Hugging is a human behaviour and most dogs need to be taught how to enjoy it. Never touch a dog who is tied up or hug a dog who has not been taught to enjoy it.
The behaviours I have written about are subtle cues that all dog owners should be aware of. Watch your dog carefully and you will see these behaviours occurring. Being able to ‘speak dog’ will make you an advocate for your dog and reduce the likelihood of antisocial behaviour and or injury.