Body Language: Observing and learning from your dog

Puppies and dogs are great communicators. Subtle body language and facial expressions convey what your puppy is thinking and feeling. From the moment you get your puppy or dog, watch closely to observe and learn about these subtle signals. The more you notice, the better you will be able to handle your puppy throughout his life. Learning about, recognizing and responding to your puppy's body language during his early months can be a critical component in helping him be emotionally healthy and well-balanced throughout his life. By noticing what your puppy is feeling in any particular environment, you'll be in a position to maximize his mental, emotional and psychological health.

Puppies and dogs of all ages display calming signals. The more you tune into your dog, the better your relationship will be. Click here for a list of “calming signals”—subtle movements and actions your puppy or dog offers that indicate he’s unsure, nervous, tentative, anxious, or even frightened. When you notice one or more of these signals, consider what is happening. Here are some of the circumstances under which you’ll notice calming signals.
  • Excitement/anticipation—for instance you might notice a yawn or sneeze in anticipation of a walk, or a meal. Think of this as a “self-calming” moment.
  • Anxiety—you might see calming signals if your dog or puppy perceives that you are upset or angry, even if it’s not directed at your pup.
  • Stress—when your puppy is stressing about something that is happening to her, such as being hugged by a child.
  • Confusion—such as when you’re training your puppy, or asking him to do something and he’s unsure what you’re looking for.
  • Communication—puppies and dogs offer calming signals as conflict avoidance, to communicate peaceful intentions; a way of saying “I’m OK . . . are you OK, too?”
As you become better at recognizing these signals, consider the context—what is happening to your puppy at this moment. For example, puppies and dogs sniff the ground. Dogs sniff when they smell something interesting, but sniffing may also be a calming signal to communicate peaceful intentions to a dog that is approaching them. Another example is panting: Dogs pant when they're overheated, but panting may be a sign of stress. A lolling tongue is generally indicative of heat-related panting. If your dog's tongue is held behind his front teeth, however, and the corners of his mouth are wrinkled in a "smile", it may indicate stress or anxiety. Consider the context.

Here are questions to ask yourself when you notice calming signals:
  • Is your puppy frightened?
  • Do you need to rescue your dog from this situation?
  • Does your puppy need to acclimate to this activity or environment? Can you help her, possibly by giving her a bit more distance or space (moving her further away from the stress-producing object/activity), or by lightening the atmosphere?
  • Is it a self-calming action? Is your dog just “taking a moment” and then she’s ready to get right back into the activity?
Sharpen your observation skills by watching for the subtle movements and body language actions dogs offer. Note what you see, along with what your puppy is doing at the time. This gives you the opportunity to help everyone learn to interact properly with your puppy, and to help puppy acclimate to life. For example, if your puppy licks his lips and turns away when your child approaches, you can help them both by teaching your child to approach calmly and slowly, even using a curved approach, as dogs do. By guiding a child in handling your puppy with gentleness and respect and rewarding the puppy for tolerating your child’s attentions, you should see fewer signals and a more confident pup.

If you’re unsure what to do, err on the side of caution—that is, always err on the side of your puppy’s or dog's emotional well-being.

For a list of calming signals, click here.