Dogs show many behaviors of which some can be seen as signals and many of these signals have been ritualized. This involves a process by which non-signaling behavior gradually evolve to become communicative signals. Common ritualized signals for dogs are behaviors like: head and/or body turns, lip licks, blinking, lifting paws, play bows, freezing, looking away, staring, raising a tail up high, tucking a tail down low, moving in slow motion, approaching in an arc or approaching head-on while staring, raising the lips to show teeth, and there are many, many more. Many of these signals are shown on a daily basis by all dogs on this planet.
Many statements are made about dog body language, often claiming that certain signals or body postures have a fixed meaning.
In example, I often read people claiming things like:
In my experience, statements and claims about dog body language can be true, but they could also be completely false. The meaning of dog body language is not fixed. It can depend on many factors. There can be many individual differences between dogs (i.e. health, breed, looks, character traits, etc..) and the learning history of the dog can influence their body language. In most cases, the most important part of understanding and ‘translating’ dog body language is: the context in which the behavior is occurring.
A dog can raise his tail and try to increase it’s body posture size by stiffening up because it is feeling insecure and fearful and it has learned that taking on a bigger posture can keep threats at a distance. Confidence may have nothing to do with it. If a dog feels confident and secure, would it feel the need to intimidate or threaten others? A confident dog probably would not be bothered to change it’s behavior at all and keep all its muscles and its posture relaxed.
Raised hackles (piloerection, an involuntary reaction, just like humans can get goose bumps) are most likely related to some form of emotional arousal and this could be a sign of anxiety, fear, excitement, nervousness or anger. In other words: it can mean many things, again, depending on the context. In addition, the same can be said for a wagging tail!
A dog may lower it’s tail while it is eating something delicious and enjoying the food.
A dog may lick his lips when it just had a drink or a snack and some of it has landed on the nose.
Though it is very valuable to learn about the many ritualized signals that dogs can show (in example, the ladder of aggression, the many signals that could be related to stress) and to be aware of what a relaxed body posture (relaxed muscles) and a tense body posture looks like (stiff muscles) when looking at a dog, always realize that dog body language is just one piece of a puzzle when it comes to analyzing behavior.
A photo or a short video of a dog showing signals offers a piece of the puzzle, but it does not offer enough information to make a reliable statement about what the dog is feeling or why the dog is behaving the way it is behaving.
© LotsDogs | Written by Liselot Boersma, dog welfare & behavior consultant (PgDip CABW) and owner of LotsDogs, april 2020. Copy paste of images or text is forbidden. Sharing the URL of this website is very much appreciated. Many thanks in advance.
Based in the Netherlands, Westbeemster
Dog Welfare & Behaviour consultant