What our dogs are saying when we’re not paying attention

How many of us have, in speaking about a dog, used the phrase “with no warning” or “out of nowhere” to describe an action or behavior? Most of us, probably. And those of us who haven’t used those words ourselves have certainly heard them over and over.

But here’s the thing. Most dogs actually communicate quite clearly, we’re just often not listening. Take dog-to-dog greetings, for example. Many dogs — like Chick — are shy and nervous around dogs they don’t know, and they tell us over and over. They just use their own language. If we don’t listen and they lose their trust in us to protect them from unwanted interactions, we sometimes run into problems.

Although it took us years to figure it out, Chick has some brilliantly clear signals to show us that he’s not ready to interact closely with another dog:  turning his face or body away from the other dog (completely pretending it’s not there), sniffing the ground suddenly and with great interest, licking his lips, and his very dramatic and Chick-like blinking. Dogs vary in the clarity of their communication, but Chick’s signs are like neon blinking lights — he’s amazing to learn from. In each of the photos below, Chick is telling the other dog that he’s not interested in coming any closer at this time. It’s very polite, and to the other dog, very clear. The photos with the Dude were taken in the first couple of weeks they were getting to know each other, so their relationship was not yet solid and comfortable. If you study carefully, you can tell that Doodlebug was interested in being friends from the start (his body language is facing Chick and he is calm and relaxed), but he politely gave Chick the space he requested. In many cases — and this is nicely skilled dog communication — Dude even mimicked Chick’s signs to show him “I see that you are unsure so I’m going to show you that I am not a threat.” The last photo of our two boys shows this nicely. Way to go, Doodlebug.

With Dora the Explorer (the pretty blue dog), Curious Georgia (the lanky black one) and Gonzo Bunny-Ears, the feeling was less mutual — the other dog was intensely interested in being pals. In those cases, it was our responsibility to make sure that Chick had the space he needed, because after all — we need him to trust us to keep him safe so that he doesn’t feel the need to take matters into his own hands.

When we see Chick starting to show his “I’m nervous” signs, we quickly and matter-of-factly help him gain more space and distance — this applies to meeting dogs, meeting people, and trying new things. The better we get at respecting his preferences, the more safe he feels and the more calm he can remain in uncertain situations. Just over the course of fostering, we noticed a big difference. Chick is visibly less stressed in being around new dogs than he once was, because we have proven to him time and again that new dogs are not a threat to him.

For those interested in learning more about dog body language and how to build trust through reading dog communication, there’s a great book available on the subject. It’s called On Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas — we’re reading it now, and we think it’s fascinating!

Who else is going through the wonderful discovery process of learning and interpreting their dog’s body language?

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28 responses

  1. Great post! They really do communicate all the time but many of us are not aware of these subtle cues. I’ll have to check out that book -thanks for the suggestion!

  2. I read that book (more of a booklet if I remember correctly) and found it both useful and fascinating. when Maisie is nervous and yawning or licking her lips (at the vet, etc.), I now try to give the same signal back to her as reassurance.

  3. “On Talking Terms” has been my karmic give-away book for well over a decade now. It’s life-changing in helping people to read their dogs, so if someone borrows it and it doesn’t make its way back to me, I totally consider it a good deed.

  4. I am guilty of saying something happened “out of nowhere” with Turk or Rufus, but through training, I’ve realized that, like you said, my dogs give clear signs that they are not comfortable. I just have to be better about reading those signs!

  5. We are always focused on Harley’s signs, and always looking to improve our ability to “listen” when she is “speaking”. And of course are still working on learning Dash’s. I am currently reading a book somewhat related to this called “Inside of a Dog” I will have to pick up the one you suggested next. Thanks!

  6. Great post. It’s amazing how the photos really show how Chick handles himself around other dogs. Even when he doesn’t like them though, he’s still a total gentleman :) It’s interesting to read how The Dude’s response differed from the other dogs’. It seems like they really are perfect bros for each other!

  7. Always learning. I know I need to learn more about my Abbie’s real (vs my perceived) thoughts. We just brought a new foster home Sunday and both her and Buddy (the bf’s dog) decided they didn’t want to wait to meet him (although I had great intentions). Somehow they knew this timid little guy needed some DOG attention to learn and build confidence. I love watching how much they teach each other, that I never could.

  8. Ah the wonderful world of dog body language. So great for helping to improve your relationship with your dog and permanently killing your ability to watch cute dog clips on the internet and making it impossible to watch certain shows on Nat Geo without tears comin to your eyes.

      • Did you see the one with the Doberman on all fours with his food bowl between his front paws? There’s an extremely young child sitting in front of him. The child pulls the bowl away. The dog pulls it back. This happens four or five times. The parents can clearly be heard LAUGHING!

        If the dog ever bites the kid it will be “We have no idea why the dog just went off!” and the dog will pay for their utter stupidity.

  9. Skye can be tough to read at times with her signals. This is primarily because she is conflicted herself many times. But helping her pace herself does wonders with new dog interactions. I loved Rugaas’ book- have you seen Sarah Kalnaj’s book ‘The Language of Dogs’? It’s one of my favorites!

  10. Love this post and I loved that book. There are ALWAYS signs, and it’s the irresponsible owners who’s dogs end up on the news. Owning a dog is a commitment to the ultimate friendship, so as in any relationship, we need to have the lines of communication open and give 100% because I guarantee you that your dog is committing a %100 to you!

  11. I really, really love this post. Through fostering and working with dogs, I feel like I’m fairly knowledgeable on body language. Even some of my co-workers seem to miss signs that I find so obvious, and misread others for something they’re not. For example, Rufus happens to be very loud sometimes when he plays with another dog. Through his growling, he really puts people off. However, what I read is his body language – lots of play bowing, shoving his butt in the other dog’s face, and a very relaxed stance. i’m so sick of repeating, “he’s just playing!” over and over again, haha. Oh well…

  12. There’s a movie called “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” and near the end someone is hugging this old Akita. He starts yawning and licking his lips as well as looking away from her as the female actor is clinging to him. The scene is meant to be heartbreaking and beautiful but I was cringing for the dog.

    And there’s a guy in the park who tries to force his Pomeranian to interact with other dogs, picking him up and moving him closer when he clearly doesn’t want to be closer. The dog simply keeps a short distance from other dogs and is very calm, but the man doesn’t see it as the blessing it is.

    I tried to explain to him that some dogs just don’t want to instantly mingle with dogs they don’t know and that I would be thrilled to have a dog that behaved like his. Not sure if I got through to him or not!

  13. Dude is so smart and respectful = )
    Both my husband and I know our dogs well, but I must admit, Carlos is in home dog whisperer. He has always been able to learn and understand our pack, as well as other dogs we see when we are out and about. when we brought Tommy into our home, because of my concern of two strong headed boys in our house, he introduced them while I was at work. He surprised me with pictures of the two chasing and playing with each other. Not once have we had an incident with these two boys, and Tommy was unaltered when we found him. Argus has never been altered, but please note we are responsible owners.
    It is amazing to learn and understand a dog’s body language and behavior.

    ~L.

  14. I think many people and dog owners forget that dogs speak to us, just not necessarily in English. I really wish everybody would read that book! I also wish that author would come out with some more ^^

  15. I must get a copy of that book, whilst I can read some of our dogs signals there is plenty for me to learn especially when it comes to being in off lead areas with my staffy x Bundy. Bundy plays well with others but I know if anything goes wrong you can guarantee that the ‘killer’ staffy will get the blame regardless of what really happened.

  16. Hey, I love your blog. But on another note, I was wondering if you could be any help! I have a dog (well it is my brothers, so I do live with the dog, but I do see her once a week at least) who is afraid of everything. Even people she is familiar with, such as myself. When I first walk into her house, she barks even after she has seen who it is, then she cringes, shaking, tail between her legs, half crouching and whimpering. Why does she do this? She also has a small full body tense whenever anyone goes to pat her. I don’t like her being “afriad” of me. She does this with everyone! Can you help?

  17. I love picking up on my dogs’ body language. My miniature schnauzer gets angry at my other dog when he is sitting in her spot, so she stands and hovers over him. I didn’t pick it up until recently that that was why she would bark at him. They are like an old married couple.

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