Is My Dog Happy? How Dogs’ Body Language Is a Guide

The behavioral signs of stress and play in dogs at the dog park and vet.

Posted Feb 23, 2020

A few days ago, Dogs Trust released the results of a survey of 2,000 dog owners who were asked what questions they would ask their dog if the dog could talk. The number one question was: “Are you happy?” Although dogs can’t talk, they communicate all the time. Getting better at reading dogs' body language is a good way for people to begin to answer this question.

We can start by looking at how scientists have assessed the body language of dogs in two very different situations—at the dog park and at the vet—where you might expect dogs to be happy and stressed, respectively.

Katrin B/Pixabay
Source: Katrin B/Pixabay

Canine scientists have developed careful ways to assess a dog’s body language. In the appendix of his wonderful book, Canine Confidential, Dr. Marc Bekoff explains how scientists measure dogs’ behavior and how to make an ethogram.

Bekoff suggests that we begin by simply observing what dogs and their humans are doing. “The outcome of these observations would be a list of behavior patterns called an ethogram,” he writes. “This list is just that, a descriptive menu of what the dogs and humans do with no interpretation or explanation for why they do it.” Creating an ethogram “really is fun and a great experience in learning about how animals act,” he says.

One great place to observe dogs’ behavior is the dog park, where hopefully various dogs are romping around, having fun playing together. In a 2013 study of what happens at the dog park (Carrier et al., 2013), the scientists looked at various behaviors related to play (play signals and attention-getting) as well as signs of stress, conflict, and mounting.

Examples of play signals include an exaggerated approach, the play bow, and the leap-on (“On hind legs, with front paws around partner’s head, tail up”). Attention-getting signals include biting, pawing at the other dog, and an exaggerated retreat.

In case you’re thinking, “Hang on a minute, did you just say biting?”—yes, biting, or biting at the other dog, is a part of play. In this case, the bite is inhibited and does no harm (dogs learn acquired bite inhibition as puppies from playing with their littermates). It’s a reminder that the context and extent of a behavior can be important when we come to try and interpret it; one dog putting teeth on another dog isn’t necessarily bad.

The signs of stress that were considered in this study were a yawn, a tucked tail, lifting a paw, licking the snout, having a hunched posture, and running or pulling away from the other dog. Although most of the dogs showed some of these signs at some point, most of them also showed many play behaviors.

Overall, most of the dogs seemed to be having a good time, which suggests they enjoyed going to the dog park and the opportunities to play with other dogs. There were a few dogs who often had a hunched posture, and in those cases, the scientists suggest that perhaps they may prefer not to go to the dog park after all.

The vet is another matter, so let’s look at some of the behaviors that were included in a study of whether a four-week training plan can help dogs be less stressed when they go to the vet (Stellato et al., 2019). As part of the study, the researchers used a five-point scale to assess fear based on the dog’s body language. This included some subtle behaviors that you will recognize by now (yawning and lip licking), as well as trembling, shaking, or vocalizing.

Dogs that were rated extremely fearful showed several of these behaviors, made many escape attempts or tried to hide, had a tucked tail, a low head, and their ears were low and pinned close to their head. In contrast, dogs that were rated as not at all fearful had their ears forward, their head and tail in a normal or high position, made no attempts to escape or hide, and did not show any of those subtle behaviors, like yawning. (And the good news? Yes, training seemed to help.)

The body language signs mentioned in this piece are, of course, not the full range of signs that dogs make, but they are all signs that we might see in our dog, whether sometimes or often. They are some of the signs that can help us to answer the question, “Are you happy?” Some of those subtle behaviors—like snout licking and yawning—may often be missed by ordinary dog owners. Meanwhile, some of the play behaviors, including the biting part, may easily be misinterpreted, causing owners to feel unnecessarily stressed.

It takes time to learn to interpret dogs’ body language, but there’s no better time to start than now. And while “Are you happy?” was the top question people wanted to ask their dog, “How could I make your life happier?” came in second place. My book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy aims to answer this question. The fact that dog owners care so much about their petshappiness bodes well for the welfare of dogs.

Facebook image: Blanscape/Shutterstock

References

Bekoff, M (2018). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Carrier, L. O., Cyr, A., Anderson, R. E., & Walsh, C. J. (2013). Exploring the dog park: Relationships between social behaviours, personality and cortisol in companion dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 146(1-4), 96-106.

Dogs Trust (20th Feb 2020) “Do you love me” among top 5 questions we most want to ask our dogs https://www.dogstrust.org.uk/news-events/news/2020/-do-you-love-me-among-top-five-questions-we-most-want-to-ask-our-dogs Retrieved 21st Feb 2020.

Stellato, A., Jajou, S., Dewey, C. E., Widowski, T. M., & Niel, L. (2019). Effect of a Standardized Four-Week Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning Training Program on Pre-Existing Veterinary Fear in Companion Dogs. Animals, 9(10), 767.

Todd, Z. (2020) Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Vancouver/Berkeley: Greystone Books.