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Training Talk: Reading Your Dog’s Mind

As a trainer I have learned that as much as we want to think our dogs understand our every word, they simply don’t. It is our goal to teach our dogs our language.  Be it English, Spanish, or Portuguese, we need to teach it to them word by word. Dogs come with their own language:  body language. It is to our benefit to learn what some of their signals are and we can learn to avoid a lot of conflict in our own relationships with our pets.

Dogs use these signals with each other and with us. Unfortunately, we don’t always recognize them for what they are and that is where many problems begin.

Barclay looking away

Barclay loves Mary but not kisses! She turns her head away to say “No Thanks”

Let’s start with the easiest one: the Look Away.

My favorite example of this is when my son was crawling (and screaming) towards my dog Mousse, who would notice him coming but not move. Her head would turn to face the wall she was lying next to as if to say “I don’t see you so you don’t see me”.  Unfortunately for Mousse the baby did see her and would continue his advance, but she would always get up and leave the room quietly before being tackled by the toddler. The Look Away is a common signal for dogs who want to avoid conflict. Next time you’re at the veterinarian watch dogs as they are put on the scale, many will look away or turn their head. Another great example is when you try to kiss your dog and they don’t want to be kissed, like Barclay in this photo.

The Play Bow is another signal.

It is often seen when dogs are engaged with other dogs or when on leash and see another dog coming. They will lower their front legs and heads with their rear high in the air, like they are bowing to their friend. They are saying “Hi, see me, want to engage?” I often will do this with my dogs and they see it the same way they do when playing with other dogs, it’s a “game on” type signal.

Yawning is a good one that usually goes unnoticed.

Yawning is a dog trying to reduce stress in his environment. We do see this a lot in the veterinarian’s office too. Your dog is not tired, nor trying to take in more oxygen, this is his way of trying to calm you down and calm himself down. If your find yourself in a situation with your dog where he is stressed, trying yawning yourself. It sounds silly but it really works!

nose lick

Lucy licks her nose and has a crouched body, pulling herself slightly away from the technician who is weighing her.

Our next signal is Nose Licking!

Yes, our dogs do lick their noses at times to clean their mouths, but this signal is a deliberate, constant nose lick. My cattle dog Tybee will do this when he is stressed. Could be something as simple as I’m not going outside to play with him at that very moment. It is almost like a tic where the tongue flicks out over and the nose again and again.  This is another stress-induced behavior and the dog is trying to calm himself down.

Excessive sniffing is another behavior you might see in a stressed dog.

This is not the type of sniffing a dog does to investigate their surroundings or find a place to potty, this is situational. You will see this a lot in a dog park, when active in play, a dog will leave the group and start to sniff, or instead of joining a playgroup the dog will wander off and sniff. Sometimes the action is too much and the dog needs a break. By going off to do something different the other dogs will leave it alone. This reduces the stress.

All of these signals are normal and you want to pay attention to them to determine if your dog is over stressed. Knowing when your dog is uncomfortable can help you manage the situation better and prevent the stress from accelerating.

relaxed dog

A happy, relaxed dog may have an open mouth “smile”, with soft, slightly closed eyes.

Dogs are very good with their body language, letting each other know and us know if they are happy or uncomfortable. A wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean a dog is happy. How the tail is being wagged (happy and relaxed, stiff and controlled, or slow and slow) will tell us how the dog is feeling and how he may react. Eyes also tell us a lot – are they soft and slightly closed or wide and frightened? And is the dog stiff and looks uncomfortable or soft and waggy towards you? Learn to read your dog and your understanding of this wonderful species as well as your relationship will only get better!

For more information on Calming Signals pick up a copy of Turid Rugass’ book on Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, available at

You can also sign up for our training classes by contacting any of the Care First Animal Hospital locations. We offer Doggie Dayschool (one-on-one training with a dog trainer) at our Oberlin, Glenwood, and Grace Park locations.

Happy Training,

Mary L. Pollard, CPDT-KA

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