November 9, 2018

How to Interpret Dog Body Language: What You Need to Know

Reading Time: 3 minutes

pitbull using dog body language with one ear upDog parents have all experienced the hilarious antics that our beloved pooches entertain us with. Fido suddenly pouncing in a downward dog position, jumping and rotating in the air and Rover with his perked ears. The question is why? Why do our dogs behave in certain ways whilst walking, at home, resting and playing? What is your dog doing and how can we understand what their intention is? All of these questions can commonly be answered through observing dog body language.

Whilst sometimes intimidating, dog body language is no more difficult to understand than basic dog training commands.

So, if you have successfully trained a puppy, or mature dog, then there is no reason why you won’t be able to learn the basics of dog body language.

What is Dog Body Language?

Body language in dogs is no different than in humans, it is either a conscious, or sometimes unconscious, movement through which dogs communicate.

These movements are often observed by humans as postures which relate to feelings and emotion.

How Can We Communicate with One Another

As humans we are often so enthralled with communicating through our spoken language that sometimes we forget about all of the forms of communication available to use:

  1. Verbal
    1. Spoken
    2. Written
  2. Non-Verbal
    1. Body Language
    2. Proximity
    3. Touch

From a whale song, to a wolf howl many animal species have verbal spoken communication, however, they are not as sophisticated as the advanced spoken languages which we speak.

Most animals therefore rely upon non-verbal communication techniques such as body language and proximity to communicate with each other.

Each animal will emphasize different body parts during non-verbal communication, for example: Whales slap their tails.

Dogs are no different.

With our basic definition of body language complete, we can start to explore body language in dogs and share some real-life examples for you to study.

cat observing dog body language

Dog Language: Watch for the Main Signs

When observing the specifics of dog body language, professional dog trainers will often use an acronym known as TEB.

TEB is an acronym that when applied to a dog’s body language can explain lots about their behavior and their intentions. TEB stands for:

  • Tail
  • Eyes
  • Body

Some professional dog trainers modify this acronym slightly to include “expression” which results in BEET.

However, expression is often difficult to interpret and can vary dramatically between dogs.

So, I like to stick with TEB as these are all physical movements which can easily by observed by us dog-parents.

Remember!

Dog body language is the conscious, or sometimes unconscious, movement through which dogs communicate.

When we use TEB we are looking to identify certain postures of the body and tail and movement of the eyes which could indicate how your dog is feeling.

It is important to note, the reason we use TEB and not just the tail or body in isolation is because we need to observe the entire body language of a dog in order to understand their communication.

If we were to focus on just a tail posture, or eye movement, we might miss their body which will also be communicating lots of information.

Observing all three elements of TEB: tail, eyes and body, will enable a much richer communication between you and your dog, giving you a much better chance of correctly interpreting their feelings or intentions.

To explain this better, below we will discuss three real life examples of dog body language.

A Look Into Dog Signs – TEB: Tails, Eyes and Body

In the example above using our TEB framework, how could we interpret the dog’s body language?

Starting with the tail, normally with a dog’s tail there are five known postures:

  1. Vertical
    1. Stiff
    2. Wagging
  2. Horizontal
    1. Stiff
    2. Wagging
  3. Tuck

How can you tell if a dog is nervous to the point of being aggressive?

The dog picture has a vertical stiff tail, now move to observe his body. Notice how stiff his posture is, his ears are perked too. Stiffness is commonly associated with aggression in dogs.

Without a dog using any form of verbal communication, he is using non-verbal communication to communicate his dominance or aggression.

Look at the eyes, a fixed gaze and dilate pupils are signs of aggression.

Notice how all three parts of the dog’s body language indicate the same message (e.g. aggression) this isn’t always the case, however, this is a lesson which we must learn to be able to observe the tail, eyes and body in order to make an educated guess.

In this next example, we can use the TEB framework again, however, it will give us a different answer.

Does a wagging tail always means a dog is happy?

Let’s start with the tail again.

This time the tail is starting to be tucked by the dog. A tucked tail can sometimes indicate the dog is shy or scared or something, but not always.

Next let’s move to the dog’s body, notice how his weight is on his forequarters, look at how stiff the forequarters are. Finally, there are no raised hackles on the dog.

Moving onto his eyes we can see they are fixated on something in front of him. However, if we look at his head, we can see it is slightly off-center with whatever he is looking at; an important c

ue. So, the eyes are fixed, but, his head is angled away.

Like the aggressive dog, this dog has a stiff body and fixed eyes, however, his hackles aren’t raised, tail is tucked and head off-center.

When combining all of these cues we can observe that the dog is scared or shy; this could be due to many reasons, incorrect socialization, poor dog handler, etc.

I hope the contrast of the two images, and correctly interpreting the body language, has helped to communicate the importance of observing the entire dog body language and not just isolated body parts.

For the final image, we wanted to share a fun example of dog body language, we want to play!

Start with the tails, horizonal tails, for both dogs. Look at their bodies too, relaxed, no sign of stiffness, no raise hackles and no weight being transferred to the forequarters.

Finally, the dog’s eyes, nice and relaxed no strong gazing or fixation on objects; especially the dog on the left.

When we explore dog’s eyes, they have two main states: fixed or relaxed. A fixed gaze with miosis pupil is normally more aggressive, and relaxed with a dilated pupil relaxed.

two pups using internal dog sign language

Begin the Conversation with You and Your Doggo Now!

Hopefully next time you go home to Fido you will now be able to understand a little more about his communication with you.

If you found this article interesting and want to learn more, then a good place to start is by applying the TEB framework to your dog.

Start by applying the framework around the house, especially during times of change (e.g. feeding time and people entering/leaving the home).

Once you feel confident, start to apply the framework whilst out walking with your dog, and then even apply it to other dogs you see interacting with your own.

You will soon start to be able to interpret lots more of your dog’s communication.

Bio:

Article by All Things Dogs; a digital dog publication aiming to teach over 40,000,000 dog owners on how to care and improve the quality of live for their dogs.

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