A dog’s facial expressions and the body language that goes with it crucial to understand if you want to know how your dog is feeling or what he is trying to communicate to you. Learning about dog facial expressions and the body language that goes with them is the key to understanding your canine companion.
Wolves evolved an intricate system of facial expressions, vocalizations and body language to communicate with each other. Dogs also use this to communicate, but if you can learn to translate this language you will be able to ‘communicate’ with your pet and easily solve many behavioral problems that may arrive.
This knowledge can also deepen the relationship you have with your dog. Opening the door to communication with your pet will strengthen your bond. You will both learn to trust each other and it will make your relationship more special than you ever anticipated.
Dog Facial Expressions and Body Language Explained
Science goes to the dogs…
You may have heard of a project that began in the late 1970's called FACS – Facial Action Coding System [PDF]. This taxonomized all the expressions a human face can make. In recent years, a handful of researchers have attempted to increases human understanding of the shared language between humans and their pets, by improving the accuracy with which people read dog facial expressions.
Research in DogFACS only began a few years ago, but 11 ‘Action Units’ and five ‘Ear Action Descriptors’ have so far been identified. An Action Unit is a movement of facial muscles involved in expression, where an Ear Action Descriptor are, you guessed it, ear movements that are part of a dog’s facial expression.
Those puppy-dog eyes
At this point in time there has just been one study done and published by DogFACS in a real-life context. In an experiment, the scientists filmed 27 dogs at a shelter interacting with strangers. Interestingly enough, there was one facial expression that corresponded with the speed of adoption – puppy-dog eyes.
The dogs who raised their inner eyebrows were adopted faster than others, and those who made the face more often during the interaction found homes the fastest.
It’s not hard to imagine why. We all know the sad and desperate look we sometimes get from our dogs. You know, the one that melts your heart and you can’t help but give your dog whatever it desires?
As humans, we often attribute human characteristics or behavior to our pets. For example, a dog’s bared teeth can easily be mistaken as a smile by children. This can be a dangerous situation as the child might move closer and get bitten.
Scientists, like the famous canine researcher and author Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, are trying to untangle the anthropomorphic assumptions from expressions of dogs. She is interested in whether attributions of understanding and emotions of dogs are sound or unsuitable applications of human psychological terms are given to non-humans.
Take for example the guilty look ascribed to pets after bad behavior. In Horowitz’s study, the behaviors of 14 domestic dogs were videotaped and analyzed for elements that correspond to the guilty look as identified by the owners. Results indicated that the so-called guilty look is a response to the owner’s cues, rather than the dog showing acknowledgement of a misdeed.
It is a good idea to read as much as you can about your dog facial expressions and body language to avoid any misunderstandings and possible dangerous situations for your children or visitors to your home.
Let’s break it down…
So what should you be looking for when learning to understand dog facial expressions? What are some of the most common dog facial expressions and which body language signs typically go along with them?
We can separate them into two categories – negative and positive facial expressions and body language.
NEGATIVE dog facial expressions and body language
Direct eye contact can get you in trouble or cause shy and tense dogs to back up. That is why it is always good to read other body language signs to find out if you are dealing with an aggressive or scared dog
If you find yourself face to face with a dog with his tail high and curled tightly over his back, and his focus is solely on you, then you are dealing with a tense dog. Watch the whites of the dog’s eyes.
A dog showing what is called ‘whale eye’, where the whites of his eyes are showing, is often anxious and may even be about to snap. Be aware of the facial muscles; are they tense, is the dog’s mouth tightly closed, or do you see teeth, with a curled lip or a snarl.
Direct eye contact from you could cause him to bite, so it is best you avert your gaze and back away slowly.
When meeting a new dog, he will likely approach you to sniff you. His body weight won’t be distributed evenly but back over his haunches. He will stretch his neck in your direction. If you look down and meet eyes, he will back up quickly and might even start barking. Try to avoid direct eye contact until the dog has had a chance to get to know you.
If the corners or his lips move forwards, watch out, as things will escalate quickly and the situation could become aggressive. Move away from anything at the first sign of tension in your dog’s face. That will save you both a lot of stress.
A tightly-closed mouth may also indicate physical discomfort. Always check your surroundings and if you do not see anything that might be the cause of tension in your dog, consider a physical ailment as a possible reason for his distress.
RECOMMENDED: 12 Signs Your Dog Is Stressed
If you spot your dog licking his lips, and we're not talking after chewing on a juicy bone, it can generally be seen as an appeasement signal. Appeasement is not necessarily a bad thing as some dogs try to placate their owners more regularly than others.
However, if appeasement gestures are given over and over again, it tells you that something in a situation is making your dog unhappy. Accompanied with severe drooling this might signal fear and you should try to remove your dog from the particular situation to see if he calms down.
Panting can happen due to several reasons. Evaluating the rest of his body language will help you figure out why your dog is panting. Is it because he may be overheated, is he excited, or might it be due to stress?
Ears alone won't tell you if your dog is excited, happy, alert or aggressive, and are best read together with other body language. For example, ears that are pinned back against the head can mean happy appeasement, fear or even stress.
POSITIVE dog facial expressions and body language
A dog who is feeling confident and friendly will have squinting eyes; round or almond-shaped with pupils dilated according to available light. This relaxed behavior will be accompanied by a curved and wiggling body with a slight tail wag.
When your dog is happy and relaxed her mouth should be closed or slightly open. The skin around her mouth should be wrinkle-free, this of course does not apply to dogs with flat faces like Boston Terriers, Bulldogs, or Bullmastiffs.
A happy dog face is easy to spot. Your dog's facial muscles will be soft and look relaxed. You might even see her muscles curl up into what can be called a ‘smile', of course without any teeth showing!
Her eyes will be squinting and soft, a sort of sleepy contentment. When happy and excited, her face my be full of excitement in anticipation of playing ball or going for a walk. As said before, always read your dog's facial expressions together with their body language to make an accurate assessment of your dog's mood.
A quick recap on dog facial expressions and body language
With the help of Paws Across America, here is a summary of dog facial expressions and body language.
|Ears||Forward or back, close to head|
|Eyes||Narrow or staring as if to challenge|
|Mouth/Jaw||Lips open, drawn back to expose teeth bared in a snarl. Possible snapping|
|Body Position||Tense. Upright. Hackles on neck up. Completely dominant|
|Tail||Straight out from body. Fluffed up|
|Vocalizations||Snarl. Growl. Loud bark|
|Mouth||Closed or slightly open in a ‘grin'|
|Body||Tense. Slightly lowered in a submissive position|
|Vocalizations||Low whine or moaning-type bark|
|Mouth||Mouth open, teeth covered. Possible panting|
|Body||Normal stance. Possible wiggling, standing on tiptoe, or pacing|
|Vocalizations||Excited short barking, whining|
|Ears||Laid back flat and low on head|
|Eyes||Narrowed, averted. Possibly rolled back in head, whites showing|
|Mouth||Lips drawn back to expose teeth|
|Body||Tense. Crouched low in submissive position. Shivering, trembling.|
|Tail||Down between legs|
|Vocalizations||Low, worried yelp, whine, or growl|
|Eyes||Wide open. Alert look|
|Mouth||Relaxed, possibly slightly open, ‘smiling' mouth|
|Body||Normal posture. Still, or possible wiggling of whole rear end|
|Tail||Up or out from body. Wagging|
|Vocalizations||Whimpering, yapping, or short, high bark|
Playful and Happy Dog
|Ears||Perked-up and forward, relaxed|
|Eyes||Wide open. Sparkly, merry-looking|
|Mouth||Relaxed and slightly open, teeth covered. Excited|
|Body||Relaxed, or front-end lowered, rear-end up in the air, wiggling in a play-bow. Excited bouncing and jumping up and down. Circling around|
|Vocalizations||Excited barking. Soft play-growling|
I'll leave you with Alexandra Horowitz's TED talk about how dogs see with their noses: