Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Dog Body Language: Is This Dog Relaxed?


Dog Body Language ImageIs this dog relaxed or tense? Let’s read this dog body language and decide. We have a lot of cues to look at. Let’s go arrow by arrow.

Light Blue Arrow pointing to the eye. This appears to be a partial “sidelong glance”. When dogs get tense they can freeze up, becoming motionless. Then, to look at something or someone nearby, they have to roll their eyes rather than turning their heads. This can expose the whites of their eyes and is often called “whale eye”. Now, not all white showing in a dog’s eye is a sign of this but when a dog is stiff and they are rolling their eyes rather than turning their heads – I become alert to their discomfort.

Dark Blue Arrow pointing to the ear. There’s that deep central fold we discussed here. Inner ear showing. Ear held back and away from head. Nothing relaxed about that ear.

Dark Purple Arrow pointing to neck. That looks like a sharp fold indicating tension to me. Have to see a relaxed pic to be sure but I’m guessing that is sharper than usual.

Light Purple Arrow toward chin. A closed, tight mouth. Those whiskers may be hiding something but that looks like a shortening mouth from here. When dogs are worried/fearful their mouths elongate. When dogs are stressed/getting annoyed their mouths shorten. I note both I stop whatever I am doing if I see shortening. That is a count-down to aggression.

Red Arrow pointing at tail. Is that tail sticking out stiffly in back? Reads that way to me. It appears at if it may have slight lift off the ground at the tip which would absolutely be tension. Hard to tell but I’m adding the impression to my entire inner picture.

Maroon(ish) Arrow toward knee. Dogs can pull their knees inward when nervous/tense. That leg looks pulled in.

Yellow Arrow at foot. As anyone who had put a tense dog down on a metal exam table knows, dogs curl their toes when anxious. That toe looks to be gripping the ground from here.

Black Arrows between the front legs aiming at the front feet. Note how we know that the person is off to the dog’s right and notice how the front feet are set a bit off to the left with the toes pointing to the left. They should be lined up with the rear feet pointing forward but they are not. This dog has moved away from the person. That’s never a sign of relaxation in any of us and not in dogs.

Let’s look at the whole picture now.

Little Girl and Tense Dog Image

If you saw this dog body language, what would you do next?

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  1. I would quickly but calmly step in and take that leash away from the little girl and walk the dog away, maybe come back and pass the child a time or two, watching for signals that the dog is less anxious about the situation.

  2. Absolutely stay calm and separate them before things get totally out of control. And then expose the dog to the child, but from a safe distance. Hopefully, this can be turned around……

  3. Tell the kid to drop the leash and walk away!

  4. Leave camera. Upbeat/happy, get and keep dog’s attention [if child looks at you, she’s looking away from dog] calmly tell child to stop, drop leash, and step back, (a squeaky toy would be nice), place self between dog and child, take leash, toss toy for dog (or walk dog) away from child . . . work on dog-child relationship so dog feels safe.

  5. 12 year old Pom. She was adopted at 3 years old, always be anxious and will occasionally snap when taking her out of car sometimes when picking her up. She developed diabetes about 3 years ago and she has cataracts. 1 week ago she dislocated her hip and is becoming more and more aggressive as time goes by. The vet put her leg in a sling to heal. We are very apprehensive about picking her up and it is becoming more difficult to take care of her. HELP

    • Here’s what I would try: if she is food-focused then use the BEST food – small hunks of plain roasted pork, say – and put that DIRECTLY to her nose as you move to pick her up. Give it to her as you lift her. Pick her up under her chest, not under her rear.

      Also, with snappy dogs, I will have them on leash and pull the leash forward a bit as I reach to pick them up to prevent spin and snaps but you can’t do that and give a treat so up to you what is safe and workable for you and her.

      Lastly, and this is hard, but sound happy as you do this so she doesn’t worry because you are worried. If she’s not on pain meds, she should be. That might help. Be careful and get local hands on help. Good luck – Sarah

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