How to read a dog like a book

Dogs are always giving us small signs as to what's going on in their heads. Experts explain how to read them

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published February 22, 2023 9:00AM (EST)

Three dogs playing in a green field on a sunny afternoon (Getty Images/Stefan Cristian Cioata)
Three dogs playing in a green field on a sunny afternoon (Getty Images/Stefan Cristian Cioata)

Growing up with dogs, I often found myself wondering what was going on in the minds of my canine companions. I am hardly alone in this sentiment: There is a reason why the world is transfixed by Bunny, a labradoodle who can "talk" using buttons — and similarly, why humans are overjoyed when dogs seem to sing along with them or cry tears of joy when they return home. Even though dogs and humans have been best friends for millennia and share a deep evolutionary bond, the two species are nevertheless forever separated by the fact that dogs cannot speak human languages and humans cannot speak dog language.

"I frequently tell owners it is no different than the Taylor Swift song. A dog is releasing the tension they have just experienced 'shake it off.. shake it off.'"

Or can we?

Experts who study dog cognition and behavior say that dogs' minds are not black boxes, as one might think of them as. Indeed, humans actually can learn how to "speak" in the way that dogs do. That, in turn, means "reading" a dog's body as if the different parts were words in a sentence to be deconstructed.

"Folks that interact with dogs have to practice reading the whole dog quickly — including the ears, tail, eyes, body posture, and body tension," Erica Feuerbacher, an associate professor at the School of Animal Sciences at Virginia Tech, tells Salon. Among other things, humans must learn to disregard the conventional wisdom that one can focus primarily on a dog's wagging (or not wagging) tail.

"We often hear the advice to look at the dog's tail, but dogs wag for a variety of reasons," Feuerbacher explained. "Instead, I try to get a whole picture of the dog. This takes practice observing dogs and seeing what behaviors precede others."

Molly Sumridge, an anthrozoologist who studies primitive dogs and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Exeter, provided more clarification on the accurate context through which humans can analyze a dog's "expressions" vis-a-vis their tail.

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"Our dogs will often tell us what they are comfortable with if we let them choose, rather than forcing them into interactions."

"It is a huge misconception that a tail wag means friendly. In reality, it just means strong emotions, good or bad," Sumridge wrote to Salon. If a dog is happy, it will wiggle its butt along with the tail; but if the butt does not also wiggle, be careful. "If the wag includes a wiggle, we're friends. If not, give space," Sumridge advised.

Instead of focusing on just one part like the tail, Feuerbacher advises dog owners to think of what the entire body says about a dog's attitude. If it "points like an arrow at something," that offers a clue regarding its thoughts. Moreover, if the dog is leaning forward towards the object of its interest, it is likely to bark, lunge, growl or otherwise indicate negative emotions. A dog's hostility may be further revealed if it freezes or stiffens. This provides owners with an opportunity to step in and avoid a serious problem.

"Try to interrupt its focus and move it further away from whatever its staring at until it can relax," Feuerbacher suggests, adding that this must be done in a "very cautious" way. "Alternatively, if it's frightened, it might be cowering back, with its ears pulled back, tail tucked, and trying to move away. This can also lead to growling or fear-related aggression. In this case, I'd also try to move the dog further away from whatever is frightening it."

Just as stiff body language that points at an object indicates negative emotions, "a dog that has loose, bouncy movement is likely one that is feeling relaxed and not worried by what's going on in its environment," Feuerbacher added.

Indeed, when dogs are feeling positive emotions and want to let humans know that they are unconcerned, they will do a little shake.

"They shake their body off as if wet — which means they are calming down and releasing stress," Sumridge told Salon. "I frequently tell owners it is no different than the Taylor Swift song. A dog is releasing the tension they have just experienced 'shake it off.. shake it off.'"

"Looking away, even briefly, in dogs means 'no thank you,' or 'I'm done,'" Sumridge explained.

Finally, experts say it is important for dog owners to cut their dog slack. If a human wishes to communicate with a dog, the key element is recognizing the dog as an autonomous being. Dogs have a tremendous sense of their own agency, and just as humans resent being pulled and prodded, so too will dogs. As such, if a human wants to communicate with a dog, it has to try to respect the dog's wishes.

"Giving dogs choice is a great way of asking them what they want and what they are feeling," Feuerbacher points out. "Rather than reaching out and approach a dog, I let the dog tell me if it wants interaction — does it approach me? Does it solicit interaction? If I pet it for 10 seconds, I'll stop and see what the dog does. If it walks away, I know it wasn't as enjoyable for it. If it stays or even nuzzles me for more, I know to keep petting."

Feuerbacher referred to these exchanges as "consent tests," ways of ensuring that a human and dog are mutually bonding rather than having a human force its will on the dog. After all, because humans traditionally dominate dogs, sometimes dogs feel as if they have no choice but to accept an interaction rather than sincerely seeking it out. This escalates the risk that a dog might eventually conclude it has to be aggressive in order to escape, much to the human's consternation and dismay.

"Our dogs will often tell us what they are comfortable with if we let them choose, rather than forcing them into interactions," Feuerbacher pointed out. "When folks ask to meet my German shepherd, I tell them they can pet him if he approaches them. If he doesn't then he's not in the mood that day and hopefully we'll meet again when he is wanting social interaction."

Sumridge furthered this observation with direct visual advice.

"Looking away, even briefly, in dogs means 'no thank you,' or 'I'm done,'" Sumridge explained. "When I see a dog do this, I think to myself that the dog is saying 'PASS!'"

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a professional writer whose work has appeared in multiple national media outlets since 2012 and exclusively at Salon since 2016. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012, was a guest on Fox Business in 2019, repeatedly warned of Trump's impending refusal to concede during the 2020 election, spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California in 2021, was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022 and appeared on NPR in 2023. His diverse interests are reflected in his interviews including: President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (1999-2001), animal scientist and autism activist Temple Grandin, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (1997-2001), director Jason Reitman ("The Front Runner"), inventor Ernő Rubik, comedian Bill Burr ("F Is for Family"), novelist James Patterson ("The President's Daughter"), epidemiologist Monica Gandhi, theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, voice actor Rob Paulsen ("Animaniacs"), mRNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó, philosopher of science Vinciane Despret, actor George Takei ("Star Trek"), climatologist Michael E. Mann, World War II historian Joshua Levine (consultant to "Dunkirk"), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (2013-present), dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson (2012, 2016), comedian and writer Larry Charles ("Seinfeld"), seismologist John Vidale, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman (2000), Ambassador Michael McFaul (2012-2014), economist Richard Wolff, director Kevin Greutert ("Saw VI"), model Liskula Cohen, actor Rodger Bumpass ("SpongeBob Squarepants"), Senator John Hickenlooper (2021-present), Senator Martin Heinrich (2013-present), Egyptologist Richard Parkinson, Rep. Eric Swalwell (2013-present), Fox News host Tucker Carlson, actor R. J. Mitte ("Breaking Bad"), theoretical physicist Avi Loeb, biologist and genomics entrepreneur William Haseltine, comedian David Cross ("Scary Movie 2"), linguistics consultant Paul Frommer ("Avatar"), Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (2007-2015), computer engineer and Internet co-inventor Leonard Kleinrock and right-wing insurrectionist Roger Stone.

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