To understand what dogs are telling us, we have to
observe and interpret their body language. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always
translate. Sometimes what people think are friendly gestures can actually be signs of aggression, stress or fear. Misinterpreting what a dog is saying can have
consequences for your safety, so it’s important to know what his body language actually means. From tail wagging
to smiling, here are four common behaviors that are easy to misread.
When you see a dog wagging his tail back and forth, don’t
assume it’s a sign of friendliness. A tail wag is an indication that a dog is
willing to interact, but it could be either a friendly or aggressive gesture.
To interpret what a tail wag means, look at the rest of the dog’s body and
posture. If his ears are pinned back, it likely means he’s uncomfortable or stressed and would prefer to escape your attention. But if the dog
is being friendly, he may come over to you or show his side or hindquarters to
be scratched. He also may lean up against you or nudge your hand to get
Showing His Belly
Just because a dog is lying on his back with his belly in
the air, it doesn’t necessarily mean he wants you to give him a belly rub. For a dog, lying
belly up can be a sign of utter submission. It’s his way of saying, “I come in peace
and am not a threat.” Some dogs do show their bellies to get attention and
will gladly accept belly rubs. But others may feel threatened by a human
standing over them in such a vulnerable position. A dog in this manner may be trying to say, “I
need space.” If a dog is on his back and you want to pet him, ask him to sit up
first. That way, you can avoid making him feel uncomfortable. If you hear a dog
snarl or growl when he’s on back, he’s saying, "Stay away" — you should listen to
Some people recognize a dog as smiling when he’s panting
with his mouth open and has a relaxed expression on his face. But for other
people, a dog smile is when a pup approaches them and shows his teeth before
getting a treat or attention. The first scenario described usually indicates
that the dog is happy, but the second one is a little trickier. Humans are one of the
only species who bare their teeth to show happiness. For most animals, baring
teeth is considered a threat. With that in consideration, the smile in the
second scenario could indicate a submissive grin, which is a gesture of deference.
Or it could be a snarl, which is a sign of aggression. In a snarl, the nose
usually becomes wrinkled and the canine teeth are exposed. Plus, the dog’s facial
expressions and posture are usually stiff. Never approach a snarling dog.
Dogs usually raise their hackles (also called piloerection)
when they feel wary or cautious. But this is not always a sign that a dog is
about to attack another dog. Sometimes a dog may have his hackles — the hair on his neck and back — raised as he
greets another dog and then go into a play bow. How confusing! If your dog has raised hackles, be
cautious — especially if he also has an unfriendly expression like the dog in this photo. Vocalization also may or may not accompany raised hackles and is another indicator of arousal. Consider waiting until he calms down before you let him interact with
other dogs. If he’s in a state of high emotional arousal, give him space and
let him relax.