Even puppies use dog body language to “talk” to each other and their owners. Dogs are most highly attuned to body language and this silent communication imparts so many messages. Your pup's dedicated observation can make it appear psychic—it always hides when a bath is imminent—when in fact, it's simply reacting to non-verbal cues you may be unaware you're broadcasting. That's why if you smile as you reprimand your puppy for stealing your socks, it reads amusement rather than reproach, and acts accordingly. It becomes an expert at reading your behaviors and you can do the same for your pup.
Canine body language serves to smooth relationships, offering a way for dogs to get along with each other and the people who make up their families. Silent canine communication makes use of the dog's body from nose to tail. The position and movement of its tail, facial expression, even its posture is telling.
Puppy eyes communicate volumes. Droopy eyelids indicate pleasure, and your pup may squint and moan with delight when its ears are rubbed.
Alert pups keep their eyes open wide. This may happen when they are worried or afraid.
An unblinking stare is a sign of assertiveness and/or aggression. While averting the eyes may be done to diffuse a conflict or may be a sign of nervousness.
The pupils of a dog's eyes may dilate widely when they are very fearful or agitated as their body is triggered into "fight or flight mode." This can occur with aggression as well. Avoid locking eyes with a strange dog. That can be interpreted as an assertive posture and may lead it to feel threatened, prompting it to challenge you back with aggression.
The dog's mouth is also quite expressive. Your pup uses its lips, teeth, and even its tongue to communicate.
In general, when the lips curl vertically to show the long dagger-shaped canines, the dog is showing assertiveness, which may stem from aggression or fear. Lips pull back horizontally to show more teeth in a canine grin of submission is often used as an appeasement gesture to signal that the dog is not a threat, and some dogs do this when they are happy or excited as well.
Grabbing the other dog's muzzle or neck with its mouth—with inhibited bite—is an assertive behavior and may be a warning sign of escalating aggression.
A flicking tongue signals intent to lick, which when aimed at the face or hands is also an appeasement gesture. The relaxed, happy pup may sit with its mouth half-open and tongue lolling out as it pants.
The ears are barometers of puppy mood. The shape of the dog's ears—whether erect or floppy and pendulous-also influence how easy ear language is to understand. For the sake of this discussion, the ear conformation of the German Shepherd dog will be used.
When erect and facing forward, the dog is interested and alert. This posture may be used by dogs who are slightly nervous or fearful and are actively listening to their surroundings.
When the ears are lowered and stretch out to the sides, this may be a sign of nervousness, especially if accompanied by other signs consistent with worry, like lowering the eyebrows and whining.
If the ears flatten against the head and this is accompanied by a lowered head and neck position, with direct eye contact, lip-curling, or growling, it may be a sign of aggression.
Tail talk is perhaps the dog's most obvious signal to people. Again, the conformation of the dog's tail—from long to docked, corkscrew, or curled—will determine the extent of your dog's tail semaphore.
Many people mistakenly assume that any wagging tail declares the dog to be friendly. However, what the tail says depends on its position and what the rest of the body is doing. A stiff raised tail with quick short wags can indicate the dog is very alert to something and may occur with feelings of excitement or aggression. A broad, loose, wag is more often associated with feeling happy and excited.
A lowered tail is often a sign of fear or submission.
Your puppy’s body carriage shows how it feels. Dogs bump, push, or lean against people or other animals as a way to communicate.
Erect posture is a sign of confidence typical of assertive dogs. They may seem to nearly stand on tiptoe when in the presence of another dog. The assertive dog leans forward toward whoever it wants to intimidate, while a more fearful dog leans backward in a submissive posture.
Dogs also stand or "loom" over top of another individual to assert their position. The more assertive dog will rest its head, chin, and/or paws over the neck or body of the more subordinate dog. Older dogs putting a puppy in his place may grab the muzzle or neck of the other pup to drive home its point and engage in mounting or clasping behavior.
The opposite is true when a dog shows submission. Puppies that feel insecure or are trying to diffuse a conflict will try to appear small and unthreatening. This may include flattening their ears, tucking their tails, crouching as low as possible, and perhaps offering a paw. Holding up a paw is a placating gesture as is rolling over to expose the tummy. Exposing the tummy, perhaps even urinating in this position or when crouched, is the dog's ultimate sign of deference.
Piloerection—fur standing upright along the ridge of his back, called the hackles—makes the dog look bigger and more impressive. It’s not a conscious thing and may happen simply when the dog becomes aroused. Raised hackles can mean serious business or can be a bluff. Both fearful and aggressive dogs raise their hackles and it can even occur during play.
Just Kidding During Play
Dogs may "pretend" to be aggressive to invite play, and indicate it's a game by using exaggerated behaviors before and after, called meta signals. Dogs also can "pretend" to be submissive to entice more subordinate playmates to engage in games. How puppies play involves a wide range of behaviors including over-doing it with exaggerated or inappropriate body language.
All these signals must be read together to place your dog's meaning in the proper context. Often, mixed signals may be sent, with the snarling front half of the dog indicating aggression while the back half wags submissively. In general, any sort of fearful or aggressive sign can prompt a bite and should be taken seriously.
Communicating submission to more assertive individuals helps each dog find a comfortable role in a group. Clear communication between dogs (and hopefully people) can help ensure that fights are rarely necessary. Well-socialized dogs use their body language to express themselves clearly and effectively so that they can seek out interactions that feel comfortable and safe and develop meaningful relationships. All of these tools make it possible for dogs to enjoy complex social interactions with other dogs as well as their favorite humans.