They’re our tail-wagging friends, our floppy-eared confidants, our companions in adventures big and small, and our furry children. But can you read dog body language? 

It may come as no surprise that a huge number of people in the U.S. have a dog. A new 2019 – 2020 APPA National Pet Owners Survey shows that an incredible 63.4 million U.S. households own a dog (compared to just 42.7 million households that own a cat).

This makes sense, as dogs are among one of the best pets for apartments and other smaller dwellings. Since they come in a variety of breeds, sizes, and personalities, it’s not hard to adopt a dog to fit your lifestyle. Add to that the fact that dogs have been scientifically proven to make people happier and it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Life with pets does require attention on your part, however, and part of that means being in tune with what your furry friend is trying to tell you about their emotional state, especially since they can’t simply come out and say, “I’m bored” or “I have to pee.” Dogs communicate instead with their body language. People may be surprised to know that dogs have a wide variety of ways to show different emotions. Here’s how to understand canine body language and how you can decipher it to help your dogs live their best fuzzy lives.

Understanding Canine Body Language

Is Your Dog Smiling?

Smiling Puppy

All dog owners have seen it: you’re at the pet park or heading through the drive-through window with Fido and look over to see his eyes all aglow, pearly whites exposed, and the corners of his mouth turned up in what appears to be a look of sheer delighted bliss. But are dogs really capable of smiling, or is this simply a human projection onto our pets? 

The jury is out on this one! While a 2012 study by the University of Cambridge found that while dogs have a less developed neocortex (the area of the brain that’s associated with complex thinking) than humans, this “does not impede a non-human animal’s ability from experiencing emotions.” Still, some animal behaviorists think dogs smile because they’ve observed their owners doing it and use the behavior to attract positive attention (and treats). A smiling dog may indeed be a happy dog! No matter what, it’s undeniable that seeing a dog smile is one form of canine body language that makes us feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. 

What Do Their Tail Movements Mean?

You can also tell a lot about how a dog is feeling by observing their tail. When a dog is feeling relaxed, it will keep its tail in a neutral position (below spine level). As it becomes interested in something, the tail will rise above spine level, beginning to move loosely back and forth if the dog gets excited.

Take note if your dog wags its tail stiffly or tucks it between its legs; this is a clear sign that he’s feeling anxious or fearful. Always be aware of your pup’s tail position.  A wagging tail doesn’t always mean a dog is happy, it could indicate a fearful dog. These are 2 opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, making it one of the most unique types of canine body language.

What Does a Snarl Say?

Snarling Dog

Not all dog body language is positive, however. It is just as important to know when your dog is unhappy as well as happy. One of the other emotions expressed through the body is aggression or anger. When showing aggression, dogs will stand stiff and rigid. This can also be accompanied by a snarl, which is a combination of showing their teeth and giving a guttural growl. Dogs do this when they are angered or threated and have decided to take the “fight” route instead of “flight”.

This is when you have to be wary of other people or animals as a threatened pup could lash out. this is when you need to get it to someplace peaceful and help them calm down. If your dog snarls at you, it could mean you’ve done something to upset it (like getting too close to their food bowl during mealtime) or, if frequent, could indicate some deeper behavioral problems you should work out. Learning the aggressive signs alongside pleasant ones will help you help them. And help you determine whether they want a belly rub or not!

Do You Know What Yawning Means?

Yawning Puppy

When humans yawn, it’s a sign that we’re exhausted from a long day at work or perhaps hours spent hitting the bike trails or staying awake late reading a good book. A human yawn is the brain’s way of stimulating itself to wake up or perhaps to cool down if its temperature has increased.

Quite the opposite of a human’s yawn, a dog yawn isn’t a restful, relaxing signal. In fact, if you notice your dog yawning, it means she’s getting stressed out. This may be your dog displaying positive stress such as excitement when getting ready for a walk, but it could also be negative stress caused by a stranger approaching or a visit to the vet’s office. Being tuned into these types of signals or signs of stress can help you know when it’s time to give your dog some alone time or work to calm him down. 

These are just a few of the ways that canine body language and body posture can clue you in to how he’s feeling. Understanding what your dog is trying to tell you will be nothing but beneficial to you both. When it comes to apartment life with pets, it’s important to pay attention to these clues so you can create a happier, more stress-free home for your dog!