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Puppy Body Language

Understand Silent Puppy Talk

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Puppy Body Language

Puppies roll on their back to express trust and deference to owners or older pets.

Image © Amy Shojai, CABC

Even puppies use dog body language to “talk” to each other and their owners. Dogs are most highly attuned to puppy body language, and this silent communication is given the greatest weight. Your pup's dedicated observation can make him appear psychic—he always hides when a bath is imminent—when in fact he's simply reacting to non-verbal cues you may be unaware you're broadcasting. That's why when you smile as you reprimand Junior for stealing your socks, the puppy reads amusement rather than reproach, and acts accordingly.

Canine 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 his tail, his facial expression, even his posture is telling.

Eye Talk

Eyes communicate volumes. Droopy eyelids indicate pleasure, and your pup may squint and moan with delight when his ears are rubbed.

Alert pups keep their eyes open wide. An unblinking stare is a challenge and shows dominance, while averting the eyes shows canine submission.

The pupils of a dog's eyes indicate aggression and imminent attack when they suddenly dilate wide. Avoid locking eyes with a strange dog. That’s a challenge and may prompt him to challenge you back with aggression.

Mouth Talk

The dog's mouth is also quite expressive. Your pup uses his lips, teeth and even his tongue to communicate.

In general, when the lips lift vertically to show the long dagger-shaped canines, the dog is showing aggression or fear. Lips pull back horizontally to show more teeth in a canine grin of submission, which is often used as an appeasement gesture toward a dominant individual. But grabbing the other dog's muzzle or neck with his mouth--with inhibited bite--shows dominance.

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 his mouth half-open and tongue lolling out as he pants.

Ear Talk

The ears are barometers of puppy mood. The shape of the dog's ears—whether erect and termed “prick ears” 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 possibly aggressive. The ears flatten against the head by degrees depending on how fearful or submissive the dog feels.

Tail Talk

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.

In most cases, a wagging tail is a distance-reducing signal that declares the dog to be friendly. However, what the tail says depends to a great degree on what the rest of the body is doing. Learn more about your puppy’s tail talk in this article.

Body Position

Your puppy’s carriage shows how he feels. Dogs bump, push or lean against people or other animals as a sign of dominance. Extremely bossy dogs may even indulge in body slamming and bowling over the other dog--or person.

Erect posture is a sign of confidence typical of dominant dogs, who seem to nearly stand on tiptoe when in the presence of another dog they want to impress. The aggressive dog leans forward toward whoever they want to cow, while the fearful dog leans backward.

Dogs also stand or "loom" over top of the dominated individual to show their social position. The more dominant dog will rest his 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 his point, and engage in mounting or clasping behavior.

The opposite is true when a dog shows submission. Puppies that feel insecure or recognize others as being in charge try to look small. Dogs cry uncle by flattening their ears, tucking their tail, crouching as low as possible and perhaps offering a paw. Holding up a paw is a placating gesture in prelude to rolling over to expose the tummy. Exposing the tummy, perhaps even urinating in this position or when crouched before the aggressor, is the dog's ultimate sign of deference.

Fur Talk

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.

Just Kidding During Play

However, dogs may "pretend" to be aggressive to invite play, and indicate it's a game by using exaggerated behaviors, 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 inappropriate play.

All these signals must be read together to place your dog's meaning in 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 a dominant individual reinforces each's position within the family group. For the most part, place is determined simply by posturing alone, and fights are rarely necessary. Well socialized dominant dogs practice chivalry, and let lower-ranking dogs off the hook when they cry uncle.

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