Saturday, 3 March 2012

“The dog was wagging it’s tail … then it bit me”

Dogs communicate to us all the time using their body language. Unfortunately we don’t always understand what they are trying to tell us, which at times can have huge consequences and may lead to serious injury.
By understanding dog body language and what they are trying to tell us, not only can we avoid accidents from happening, but we can also build a better relationship with our dogs, reduce their stress and improve our training. All of which will lead to a better behaved dog, which is something we all want.


Relaxed dog:
  1. Relaxed muscles so the dog will move smoothly.
  2. The dog’s body weight will be in the centre with equal weight positioned on all 4 paws.
  3. Their ears will be in their natural position – this will depend on the dog – a golden retriever’s will be flopped over and side on whilst a German shepherd’s will be pricked up.
  4. Their tail will be loose and may have a slight gentle wag to it – loose and soft moving from the top of the tail to the tip. It will be in the dog’s natural position again dependant on the dog’s breed. A labrador’s tail might be lower than horizontal whilst a spitz breed may have their flipped up over their back.
  5. They will generally be happy to just look around and won’t be fixated on anything in particular.

Alert dog:
  1. Muscles will be more tense and the dog will move in a more stiff/purposeful manner – think soldier marching compared to some one walking down the street. An extreme example is a dog stalking and then pointing out a bird.
  2. The dog’s body weight will be positioned more forwards with a greater weight on their front 2 paws compared to the back ones. They will also seem bigger than usual because they will be making them selves as tall as possible.
  3. Their ears are likely to be pricked forwards in the direction that they have interest in. This is to help them gain more information about the situation.
  4. The dog’s tail will be stiff with or without a wag. If wagging it will be fast. The tail will be positioned higher than normal so for a Labrador that might be in a horizontal position but some breeds can pull them up higher above their back.
  5. Generally the dog will be fixated on something in particular and will be unlikely to be able to remove their gaze from a specific area – if they have become alert due to a smell or noise then they might be scanning to determine where it has come from.
  6. The dog may have put their hackles up – the hackles are the dog’s fur standing up on end and can start at the top of the dog’s head right down to the tip of their tail.

Nervous dog:
  1. Muscles will be very tense and the dog, if moving, will seem stiff and tentative.
  2. The dog’s body weight will be more backwards with a greater weight on their 2 back paws compared to the front ones. They will also be lower to the ground.
  3. Their ears are likely to be pulled back or even flat against their head.
  4. The dog’s tail will be stiff and with or without a wag. If wagging it will be either very quick or very slow – both types will be stiff with the whole tail moving as one.
  5. The tail will be at a lower position than normal for your dog – mostly this means hanging straight down but a very worried dog may have it tucked right between their legs.
  6. The dog will generally have their gaze fixed on what is making them anxious but if they can’t pinpoint where that is then they may scan the environment.
  7. Their hackles may or may not be up.
  8. They are likely to be showing other stress signals – discussed below.

As you can see from above it is not all plain sailing when it comes to reading your dog. The same posture/movement can mean your dog is either alert or nervous. The key to understanding how your dog is feeling is to look at the whole dog as one. If accompanied by a low body posture and ears flat against the dog’s head, a wagging tail does not always mean happy.
Probably the most important emotion that we must be able to read from our dogs is that of fear or anxiety. Fear is an overwhelming emotion for both humans and dogs, which means that the person/animal may do irrational or unusual things when in that state. These actions could be dangerous for the dog or people around the dog. Fear can cause 4 different reactions, the 4fs, FLIGHT, FIGHT, FREEZE or FIDDLE ABOUT.


  1. Moving away from the scary thing or simply not looking at it. Have you got cross at your dog for not paying attention to you and your dog just ignores you? Your dog is trying to avoid the conflict because he is worried (not because he is stubborn) – try softening your voice and see if your dog suddenly perks up again.
  2. The dog on the left here is a little uncomfortable with being so close to the dog on the right. She could be distracted but this was a series of three photos which all showed her giving off stress signals (see sniffing a licking lips and shaking off)

  1. Running as fast as they can away from what scares them. This can be a very dangerous action if you are out on a walk as they can run across roads (potentially life threatening for your dog and other road users). Your dog is also liable to get lost in this state because they are not in a rational state to remember where you are. Even the dog with the best recall will not respond if they are this scared. If you have a dog that is liable to bolt keep them on a lead for their safety and that of others.
  • Does your dog lunge at, bark at or show other aggression towards people/dogs or other things? The likely reason is that your dog is fearful of it. Your dog is trying to make itself as big and threatening as it can to make the thing they are scared of go away.
  • If your dog is reacting in this way get your dog out of the situation – if the scary thing gets closer to them they are likely to escalate their attempts to make it go away which could lead to a bite.
  • If your dog does react in this way it is imperative that you do not shout, scold or add anything negative to the situation as this is just going to confirm their fears that the scary thing is dangerous. Instead book yourself in for a behavioural 121 with a trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods. We have 4 experienced trainers here at Sussex County Dog Training who are all willing to help you out – just give the office a call (01243 697 202).

Inability to move:
  1. The dog becomes fixed in one place and can’t move away or get closer they are literally frozen with fear.
  1. Your dog will not be able to take their eyes off what they are scared of. Making sure it is not getting closer to them in case they need to change their tactic to keep themselves safe.


These are displacement activities, which your dog might do. They are similar to those we use such as biting our nails, twisting our hair, children sucking their thumbs… A lot of these will show up if you ask your dog to do something either in a harsh way or they are slightly stressed so can’t do as you are asking.

  1. As though they have fleas but you know they don’t.
  2. Chronic stress may lead to a dog harming itself by obsessive licking, scratching or biting of it’s fur – a likely cause if your vet can’t find a medical one.
  3. Remember you dog may just have an itch so read the situation carefully before assuming it is one or the other.
  1.  Intensely sniffing the ground when they weren’t previously interested in that area.
  2. They may just also be sniffing because there is a good smell again reading their other body language is essential.

  1. You might see this if you bring your dog to training class and you are letting your dog explore but even though they have just had a drink they keep going back to have more.
  2. Remember your dog may just be thirsty especially if you are using salty treats.
A need to hold a toy:
  1. Generally this occurs with gundog breeds – they might find it is comforting to have a large soft item in their mouth – very similar to when children suck their thumbs.
There are two final categories that we need to look at – stress signals (for more information see ‘Calming signals’ by Turid Rugaas) and stress release signals. These final two categories are often found accompanying the other behavioural signals described above but are key things to look out for and can help you determine whether your dog’s behaviour is due to stress/anxiety or something else.


Licking lips – the tongue flicks out quickly and usually repetitively. Your dog may just be cleaning it’s mouth if it has eaten a yummy treat!

Yawning – either partially or full yawns are a sign of stress just as they are in humans. Again there is another explanation – your dog has woken up or is tired.

Panting – this is a different type of panting to that of when your dog is hot.
  1. The face being very tense with the corners of the mouth drawn right back accompanies stress panting.
  2. The tongue usually stays within the set of teeth as apposed to lolling to the side if your dog is hot. The panting is generally very shallow and quick.

Slow movement – your dog does everything in slow motion – this is the dog trying to calm a situation down by not making any sudden movements.

Curving – this is most commonly seen when dogs are going to greet something or try very hard to avoid it.
  1. A polite greeting by dogs is where they both walk towards each other in a curve – they may end up doing a circle around each other before they reach each other’s bottoms for a sniff.
  2. Dogs who are slightly anxious about greeting a person will come in at a angle to you. You can make them more comfortable by turning sideways to them.
Blinking – very slow and large blinks.

Trembling – as though your dog is shivering because they are cold but will usually be accompanied by several other stress signals.

Wide (whale) eye – your dog will show the whites of their eyes and their pupils will be dilated (very large) to enable them to take in as much information as possible.



These tend to come when the stress the dog is feeling is removed however they can come during a stressful period as well.

Shaking off – as though they have just been swimming and are shaking water off.

Stretching – as though they have woken up.

If you would like to learn any more about this subject and what your own dog is trying to communicate to you do not hesitate to contact one of the trainers (Jeff, Miranda, Gemma or Anna) here at Sussex County Dog Training. If your dog does any of the behaviours listed above we would love for you to come and see us so we can help you and your dog. We run both classes and 121 sessions for your convenience just give the office a call – 01243 697 202 or email

By Anna Nussey

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