Dogs are unable to use speech to express feelings like uncertainty, fear, aggression, pleasure or playfulness. But every dog has a range of “body signals” that it can use to express these emotions. Visible signs of how your dog is feeling can be shown by its whole body and also by its face. Barks, growls and whimpers give other clues.
As a dog owner, it is important that you should be able to read these signals. Be alert and “tuned in” to recognize signs based on body posture, vocalization ears, eyes, lips, tongue, tail, hair, standing on end.
The dog’s voice
Most dogs are fairly vocal. They can produce a range of sounds ranging from whimpers, through rolling growls to proper barks. Dogs use their voices to express themselves, raising the pitch or volume of their bark to indicate frustration or emotion. Barking isn’t necessarily aggressive. It is more likely to mean “hurry up, come and play!” or “nice to see you!” than “one false move and I’ll tear your throat out”
Growling is more often aggressive in adult dogs than puppies. Some dogs play growl, but their mood is always obvious. Many can make a rolling sound like a growl, fluctuating in pitch. The pitch of an aggressive growl may be constant or increase with the aggressive body posture.
The “normal” dog
A happy, alert dog carries its tail well, with no tension in its body. It moves freely and holds its head high. The tongue may loll out and the jaws are relaxed.
Asking to play
When it wants a game, a dog often dips down at the front into a crouch. It gives little yips and barks or rolling growls with high notes. It may raise one foot and lean to one side, its head almost on the ground. It may jump backwards and forwards, the head looking up at you with relaxed jaws.
The invitation to play may quickly change into a submissive posture with the dog in a lower crouch. It still raises its front feet in a mild play invitation, teeth are hidden. There is no tension in this posture and the dog is probably silent. As it crouches lower it may lick a little. A submissive dog often turns side-on to present its flank.
Now the dog’s ears are folded down. It drops it’s tail and folds it round one leg, very nervous animals will tuck it right under. The head is down to avoid eye contact, with reassurance it comes up . The final stage in submission is rolling over, one hind leg raised. Unless afraid, the dog usually raises it’s ears a little to show the submission stems from trust.
The dog shows its teeth, emits a constant low growl or snarl, or even barks. The ears are laid back. The whole body is tense, with the back legs held ready for rapid movement. The hair down the center of the dog’s back stands on end. The tail is held down and rigid.
Rather than simply warning you off, the dog advances confidently with its tail and ears held high. It will look straight at you, teeth bared, snapping and ready to bite.
Like ourselves, dogs are blessed with facial muscles capable of giving different expressions to the face, although these muscles and their control system are not as efficient as man’s.
The lips can be curled back to expose the teeth. Baring the teeth is not always aggressive – some dogs seem almost to laugh, and when very pleased, their lips are drawn back to expose the incisors. In aggression, the lips are drawn back further, often exposing the pointed canine teeth as well.
The Ears are extremely mobile and can turn to follow sounds – even drop-eared dogs such as spaniels can move their ears into an alert position, although they don’t have the range of expression of those breeds with erect ears.
The eyes are expressive too. When a dog is happy, there is a distinct brightening of the eyes. Some dogs raise their eyelids when surprised or quizzical – this is often exaggerated by a tilting of the head.
Staring Fearful aggression may give the dog a wild, wide-eyed look; the skin is drawn back, exposing the whites of the eyes and often the pupils are dilated. But in dominant aggression, the pupils will probably be constricted, daring eye contact and fixed on your every move.
To a dog, a fixed stare is a challenge. Usually, a person staring at a dog will cause the dog to look away and become submissive. A dog sure of itself and its relationship with the owner may simply react with a questioning look. However don’t try to “stare out” a dog unless your confident that you can handle the potential attack that may follow your losing this eye-to eye contest.