Reading Your Dog – Episode 1

Worried white dog close up

How many times have you looked at your dog and wondered what’s going on in her head?  My husband frequently asks me if I think our dog is happy.  This can sometimes be a difficult question to answer, but training yourself to read subtle signs in your dog can go a long way toward understanding their mental and emotional well-being.  To that end, I would like to periodically post a video or picture of a dog and provide some comments on his or her behavior.  If you have a video or picture you’d like interpreted, please send it to info@smartdogtrainingandbehavior.com.

This week’s video was posted in the Association of Professional Dog Trainer’s discussion group.  Most trainers (including myself) were in agreement on their interpretation of the dog’s behavior.  Before watching the video, here are some things to look for.

Common signs of stress in dogs

Most people recognize outright fear or panic in dogs.  However, there are more subtle signs that can indicate a dog is worried or distressed.  They include:

  • Closed mouth
  • Still or tense body posture
  • Yawning
  • Lip licking
  • Ears back or lowered

Signs that a dog is feeling relaxed or happy

  • Open mouth
  • Soft eyes (muscles around the eyes are relaxed)
  • Relaxed body posture and face
  • “Curvy body”  (think of a happy lab wagging so hard it’s whole body is moving)
  • Wagging tail

Keep in mind that many of these behaviors can indicate other things as well.  For example, a dog might be yawning because he just woke up or have her mouth closed because she is intently watching something.  A wagging tail can also be an indication of aggression.  The key is to look at the constellation of behaviors, and the context, and use all of that information together to make an assessment about how a dog is feeling.  Easier said than done!

Here are a couple photos to illustrate calm and worried expressions in dogs.

Happy face chihua mix

Above:  This dog’s mouth is open and he (or she) has a relatively relaxed face.  His ears are out to the side, but this is probably a relatively neutral position for this ear type and they are definitely not completely lowered or flattened.  I’d say this dog is feeling pretty happy.

Stressed face 1

Above:  This dog’s mouth is closed and her (or his) ears are flattened.  There is tension in the face, the eyebrows are somewhat furrowed and you can see the whites of her eyes.  It’s hard to tell, but the lips are also pulled back, which is another sign of stress.  I’d say this dog is very worried.

Note:  The white dog in the picture at the top of the post also looks stressed – furrowed eyebrows, closed mouth, tension in the face.

Do not worry if you can’t pick out all of the differences between the two photos.  There are subtle, but just keep practicing – this is a skill that can definitely be learned!


Alright, here is the video.  Keep the information above in mind and make your best guess about how the dog in the video is feeling.  My thoughts are below.

My assessment

Here is what I noticed:

  • In the beginning, before the dog is even in the swing, her body is tense and her ears are back.  They remain back in the swing.
  • Her mouth is closed, she is very still (read: tense) and her tail is tucked.  It could be tucked because of her position in the swing, but it was also tucked when she was picked up.
  • At about 45 seconds she opens her mouth and begins to pant.  Her behavior here is difficult to interpret because the open mouth could be a sign that she is relaxed, but she could also be panting due to stress.  This is where you really need to take a look at the picture as a whole (more on this below).
  • At about 1:50 she licks her lips, another sign of stress.

Given the whole picture, my conclusion is that this dog is most likely NOT enjoying the experience and is probably stressed.  My guess is that she is a very passive, tolerant dog that will go along with what her owner’s want, even if she doesn’t enjoy it.  Yes, it is hard to interpret a dog’s behavior, but if I am in doubt, I tend to err on the side of caution and remove them from the situation.  Why risk it?  The dialogue in the video also suggests that they’ve done this with her before.  If she truly enjoyed her previous experiences, she would likely solicit access to the swings from her owner.  Instead, she appears worried when he calls her over and picks her up.  That’s my take.  It’s worth noting that while about 90% of the responses to the forum post agreed the dog was stressed, about 10% or so did think she was enjoying it.  What do you think?

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Kristina Spaulding

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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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