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The Language of Dogs: Sight

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Understanding our dog’s body language and what he is saying is an important part of dog training. Dogs send and receive signals via, sound, smell and sight.

A good story from the late 19th century that demonstrates how carefully animals observe body language is the story of “Clever Hans”, do a google search on “Clever Hans” to be entertained by this clever horse. If we were half observant as Hans we would have a better understanding of what our dogs are telling us.

It is important to look at what a dog’s ears, eyes, tail and other body parts are doing and learn to interpret those movements as body language with meaning. Training will go a lot more smoothly if you can understand more about what a dog is saying along the way.

Just like mastering any spoken language, learning to read dog language takes experience, time and practice. To understand body langauge it must be interpreted in context and read in conjunction with other signals the dog is giving at that time. Subtle details must also be noted, for example, a wagging tail can indicate several things, depending upon the way it is wagging. A slowly wagging tail can indicate uncertainty while a wildly wagging tail can indicate excitement rather than pleasure.  Breaking body language down to one part at a time can be helpful in building your observation and interpretation skills. However, it is vitally important to consider the whole body and the context, in order to truly ‘hear’ what a dog is saying.

Dogs are very honest in their communication and body language is a very good predictor of what behaviours are going to happen.  Dog owners often say that there dog did something without warning, usually there was a warning, but it was missed. Dog’s body language is often very subtle. We also need to bear in mind that sometimes body movements aren’t intended as communication. A dog might just be scratching because it’s itchy or it might be a displacement activity; the environment of the behaviour is very important. Fortunately, dogs seem to use the same communication signals interacting with humans as they do with dogs. So let’s learn a little bit about dog’s body language.


Ears need to be observed in context and in combination with other body postures. Dogs have a wide variety of ear types. Although it might be easier to see ear position in dogs that have erect ears such as a German Shepard, even floppy-eared dogs like Goldens can move the base of their ears forward and back to show different emotions. When a dog is relaxed, his ears may be slightly back or out to the sides. As a dog becomes more aroused, the ears will move forward, pointing toward a subject of interest. When their ears are most forward their foreheads might wrinkle. Ears back could signal appeasement and greeting but can also show a scared or defensive state. When listening to your dog ears, firstly understand what they look like when your dog is relaxed and in a neutral state, then see how they change position in combination with other body signals in different social interactions that your dog has. 

Raised ears mean self-confidence and retracted ears insecurity. The position of the ears combined with other body postures express various emotions.[1]

Eyes can be easier to read than ears.  Direct, prolonged eye contact with hard cold eyes is usually a precursor to an offensive threat.  If you see this behaviour stop it, put something between the dog and what they are staring at. Conversely, a dog that looks away a lot or avoids eye contact can predict fear or submission. A dog that constantly moves its eyes in all directions, scanning the environment may also be a dog that is not comfortable in that situation. Dogs that are extremely uncomfortable or even frightened turn their head away from the problem; however, they need to still watch the problem. This causes the whites of their eyes to become visible, this is often called “whale” eye. Fearful dog’s eyes often appear very black, large and “glassy”, this is because the pupils have become dilated, but remember lighting conditions can also affect whether a dogs pupils are dilated. A relaxed dog will often squint, so that his eyes become almond shaped with no showing white at all as in the picture of the golden retriever.


Mouth and Muzzle, Teeth and Tongue. Often the first sign of communication is a hardening of the face. On some dogs, wrinkles or furrows that aren’t normally seen become visible on the forehead and around the corners of the mouth with arousal. A good way to see this is too watch your dog’s whiskers, since the whisker beds move when the face starts to get tense.  A relaxed dog like the golden retriever above will likely have his mouth open and may be panting, with no facial or mouth tension. The corners of his mouth maybe turned up slightly in a smile.

In contrast a fearful or tense dog will generally keep his mouth closed and may pull his lips back at the corners; he may also be panting rapidly. A panting dog who suddenly closes his mouth in response to something in the environment may also be indicating increased stress. Drooling out of context i.e. when no food is present can also be a sign of fear or stress.

A dog displaying a physical warning may start to wrinkle the top of his muzzle to display his front teeth. This warning often comes with a tense forehead, hard fully dilated eyes, a lack of movement and even growling. However, some dogs display a “submissive grin” or “smile” where they also show their front teeth, but a “smiling” dog also usually shows a lowered head, wagging tail, relaxed soft body posture and soft squinty eyes. Teeth don’t always mean aggression – it is important to consider the whole body and the context to understand what a dog is saying.

Dogs in a conflict situation are often seen to stretch their tongues forward and back in a quick motion.


Tail when observing a dog’s tail, there are two things to consider: the position of the base of the tail and how the tail is moving. Dogs use their tails to emphasise signals expressed by facial and body postures, or vocally.


High tail carriage is usually associated with dominance and a low tail carriage with submission. It is important to recognise that the tail is more likely to follow dominance and submission than aggression and fear. For example, a dog showing aggression and submission at the same time shows a low tail carriage.


A wagging tail doesn’t only mean friendliness it is just a sign of excitement or arousal. A tail which is carried high, combined with a slight wag, emphasises the dog’s dominance. During attack, the tail is lowered to a horizontal position in the dominant dog. A slight wagging in a lower position may be a preparation for attack. Puppies and young dogs may wag with their tails tucked between their legs, sometimes even when lying on their backs, to signal their unconditional submission. The language of the tail is usually clear. However, misunderstandings can occur between dogs with docked tails, especially at a distance.


Hair much like goose bumps on humans a dogs hair along his back can raise when he his upset or aroused, This is also known as “piloerection” or “raised hackles” and occurs across the shoulders, down the spine and above the tail. Raised hackles are often assumed to be an indication of aggression. However, raising the hackles normally appears when the dog is taken by surprise and shows submission. In normal conditions, the dominant and self-assured dog does not need to raise its hackles since all its body attitudes show strength. The fearful, submissive and surprised dog probably raises its hackles to frighten its opponent. If it succeeds in making its opponent hesitate for a moment it will have a better chance to prepare its defence, or flee.

Raised hackles are often seen as an indication of aggression. However, raising the hackles normally appears when the dog is taken by surprise and shows submission[2].


Legs obviously have the task of supporting the dog and moving it from one location to another!

But legs also emphasise body signals. The submissive, fearful or cautious dog walks slowly, with its legs bent. The dominant or aggressive dog walks on straight stiff legs.


Calming Signals a term coined by Turid Rugaas, refer to the movements and body language dogs use to maintain the social hierarchy and resolve conflict within the social pack. By using various body postures, dogs calm themselves and other dogs in situations of stress. The signals have the effect of decreasing hostilities before they have a chance to worsen into more serious conflict.

Calming signals can be given by the more dominant or confident dog as a way of saying “don’t worry, I’m not going to attack you”; or they can be used by submissive dogs or dogs feeling threatened as a way of saying “don’t attack me, I’m not going to challenge you” or by one dog who wishes to communicate “cool it, guys” to other dogs. 





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