The Power of Body Language

By Veronica Rigatti, VSA-CDT, Canine Behavior Specialist

At one time or another, we have all wished that our animals could speak to us. But our pets do use another form of communication to tell us what they are thinking – body language. Sometimes this form of communication is easy to understand, but in some instances it can be much more complex.

If we closely observe an animal’s movements, we can figure out what they are feeling. Their body language reveals if they’re happy, scared, shy, confident, playful or stressed. Animals communicate in a variety of ways using their ears, eyes, mouth, tail, degree of muscle tension and posture. When figuring out what an animal is trying to say to us, we have to look at their overall behavior as well as what the different parts of their body are doing. We also need to consider their environment and what may be causing them to act as they are.

Here are a few general things to look for:

Ears Animals’ ears can rotate front to back. Regardless of the shape of an animal’s ears, look at the base of the ear to determine where the animal is holding them.

Eyes The shape of their eyes and what their eyes are doing can tell you a lot. Are their pupils dilated? How fast are they blinking? Are they holding a stare or glancing away? Do you see the whites of their eyes? What is the position of their eyebrows?

Mouth What is the shape of their mouth? What are they doing with their tongue? Are they yawning? Can you see their teeth?

Tail Look at the base of tail, regardless of shape. How are they holding and moving their tail?

Muscle Tension Is their body stiff and still or loose and wiggly?

Overall Posture Are they leaning toward you or away from you?

Animals use all of their body parts together to communicate what they’re feeling. You will also need to consider what is happening in the animal’s environment. For example, a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog. If the dog’s tail is wagging at the same time that their body is loose and wiggly and their owner has just gotten home, it’s safe to assume that this is a happy dog. But if the dog’s tail is tucked between their legs and wagging while their body is cowering, ears are pulled back and they are licking their lips, this dog is more anxious and fearful.

Our pets’ body language doesn’t just send us messages, our own body language sends them messages, too. It’s important to avoid staring directly at an animal or approaching them head-on – they can interpret these actions as threatening. It’s best to approach them sideways and to use your peripheral vision to look at them. Instead of leaning over an animal or reaching out toward them – which can also be seen as threatening – let them approach you when they’re comfortable.

While animals can’t speak to us using our language, they do communicate with us constantly through their body language – it’s up to us to pay attention and listen to what they’re telling us!

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