Dogs are born with the ability to understand social cues in humans, and our canine best friends are experts in reading body language and being guided by our emotions.
This often causes a knock-on effect in their behaviour, for better or for worse. Here are some different ways that dogs interpret body language, with a some tips to keep your pet happy and calm.
When talking to another human, eye contact is important, showing interest and engagement. To a dog, however, maintaining eye contact is perceived as a challenge or a threat. Our dogs will look directly at us if they trust us and feel at ease, but they will frequently turn their head or look away to show they are being non-confrontational. Prolonged periods of eye contact can make a dog feel really worried.
Tip: When you looking at your dog, try to do so with as soft a gaze as possible to keep them calm and comfortable, and avoid holding direct eye contact.
When we meet new people, we face towards them and might extend a hand to greet them. It would look strange if we approached someone sideways on, eyes lowered, with a hand placed to be easily sniffed! However, for dogs this is the perfect way to say ‘hi’: they can get nervous if you approach them head-on or lean over them and may interpret this as a threat or challenge.
Tip: When meeting a new dog, stand calmly to its side or crouch at arm’s length and let the dog approach you. This way you are showing the dog that you are not a threat.
“Dogs are very communicative with us, but we don't always pick up on what they are telling us. The more we are aware of what the signs of stress are, the more we can listen to our dog and prevent them from feeling stressed or anxious. - Niamh Carwood, TheraPaws Coordinator at Mayhew
When walking your dog, non-verbal signals can be transferred down through the lead, usually without you realising – they will sense any tension you feel in your grip. It can take practice in situations that would normally make you anxious, but staying calm and relaxed and keeping a loose lead will help keep your dog happy too.
Tip: It’s normal to worry sometimes about things like your dog greeting another dog. However, the more tense you are, the more anxious your four-legged friend is likely to become. Try to keep the lead in a firm but loose grip with your arm relaxed and speak in a happy tone of voice to help the introduction go as well as possible.
We love our dogs and want them to know that. Showing affection through hugging is second nature to people, but not all dogs like hugs. Some dogs will cuddle up to us but only in their own way, often one which is less restrictive for them – perhaps sprawling across you when you are on your sofa.
Tip: If you want to cuddle your dog, avoid any embrace that may feel constricting. Pay attention to how your dog reacts when they are hugged – for example, do they move their head away? If so, your dog may be trying to show you that they aren’t comfortable being held in a hug.
Keeping our dogs happy and calm at Mayhew
Shelter environments can be very stressful for dogs, and our experienced Kennels team works hard to ensure that all our dogs feel calm and relaxed throughout their time with us.
“We use essential oils like lavender and play reggae music to the dogs. This not only helps relax our dogs, but also creates a calm and happy environment for our staff and volunteers to work in. Our emotions transfer down to our dogs, so the more relaxed our staff, the happier our dogs.” - Head of Kennels at Mayhew
Telltale signs of doggy stress
- Turning their head away from whatever is bothering or worrying them. Sometimes they will also close or partially close their eyes.
- 'Whale’ or ‘half-moon’ eyes (when you can see some of the white portion of the eyes at the corner, appearing in a half-moon shape) can mean your dog is anxious or uncomfortable.
- Excessive lip licking (when there isn’t food around!). This behaviour is used by dogs to soothe a person or animal that they view as a threat in an attempt to ward off aggression.
- Yawning. This can be a sign of general stress or discomfort, but dogs also use yawns to calm down situations between themselves and other dogs.
- Shaking it off. A dog will literally shake itself off after a stressful situation – for example, after being hugged.
- Tail between legs. A tail that simply hangs straight down or is only wagging at the tip can also be a sign of stress.
- Pinned back or lowered ears. Dog ears differ, of course, but many dogs pull their ears back when they feel uneasy.