The ever-changing world can cause both humans and animals to feel a wide range of emotions. Whereas we humans try to keep our feelings internal, our dogs very much wear their emotions ‘on their sleeve’. They use a combination of posture, facial expressions, as well as other body language to display their emotions, and being able to decipher this is an important part of communicating with your canine.
Happiness is one of the easiest emotions to recognize and is usually the one they display the most! When a dog is happy, they will show this through a tail that is held high or down in a natural position– perhaps even wagging – a relaxed body, and a partially open mouth that gives the appearance of a slight smile.
When something has caught your dog’s attention, they show it in a few ways. An alert dog will have their head up, eyes open and concentrated, with their ears pointing ahead or moving slightly to find the source of the sound. Their body and tail will be motionless, and their mouth closed – although some may bark or growl depending on their assessment of the situation.
Alert behavior usually only lasts a few moments before your dog determines how to react to what has caught their attention. If your dog’s behavior seems to be transforming into fear or anger, try to determine what is causing this and slowly introduce them to the source. If your dog’s alertness consistently transitions into fear or anger, the best thing to do is contact a certified trainer who can help them work through this reactive behavior.
Similar to humans, when a dog isn’t sure how to react to a situation they develop feelings of anxiety. You can tell your pup is anxious when their eyes are wide and starting or they avoid eye contact altogether. Their mouth is likely closed, but if it’s open they may be licking their lips or yawning nervously, and their ears will be slightly back and moving as they try and gather clues about the situation. Anxious dogs tend to stand very still, but it’s not uncommon for their tail to wag slowly, which is a sign that they don’t want any conflict. Similarly, they may roll onto their back to expose their belly as a way to show their submission.
Depending on the root of your dog’s anxiety, there are different things you can do to help them overcome it. If your dog displays mild anxiety when they encounter new situations, take time to introduce them to it slowly. If this slow introduction approach doesn’t work, reach out to your veterinarian. They will be able to refer you to a trainer who can work with you and your dog to reduce this anxious behavior as well as prescribe medication if necessary.
Dogs most often experience frustration in response to a specific event – usually, one where they do not get what they want. Their body will be tense as they focus completely on the source of their frustration, often ignoring any of your attempts to get their attention. As their frustration peaks, they may bark or lunge at the frustrating object.
Unfortunately, if dogs are continually frustrated they will often resign themselves to the situation. While this may look like calm behavior, it can actually lead to feelings of depression. If you recognize that your dog is becoming frustrated, see if there is anything you can do to make the situation easier for them to deal with. For example, if they cannot figure out a difficult puzzle feeding toy, try and show them how it can be solved or simply remove the food from it completely. If there is little you can do to make the situation easier for them to deal with, for example, if they are trying to engage in play with another dog that is not reciprocating, it’s best to remove them from the situation completely. You can then give them some attention until their behavior returns to normal.
There are many different ways that dogs express fear. Some go on the defensive, growling and barking to make themselves appear threatening. Others try and escape the threat by tucking their tail between their legs and try to make themselves as small as possible.
When your dog is afraid, all they are thinking about is how they will ‘survive’ the threat. This means that they will be able to focus on little else, including their favorite food or treat until the threat has subsided. If you notice your dog expressing fearful behavior, quickly try and identify what is scaring them. If their fear is triggered by something you can move away from, do so until they have calmed down. If the source of their fear is something unavoidable, like fireworks or thunder, do your best to create a space in your home where the source of their fear is minimized so they can feel safe.
In addition to happiness, anger is one of the most recognizable emotions a dog can display. If your dog is experiencing anger, they will try and make themselves look as big as possible by standing stiff with the fur on their back and neck standing upright. Their eyes will be fixed on the threat, while their ears are pinned back and their mouths wide and teeth bared. While they will most likely be growling, some dogs prefer to remain completely silent.
When your dog is angry, you’ll want to remain calm, avoiding any loud noises or sudden movements. If you're able to remove what is making them angry, do so and give them some space and time to calm down. If you find your dog becoming angry regularly, it’s important to reach out to a professional trainer who can help you and your dog work through these emotions safely. If left unchecked, there is a chance that your dog could feel the need to protect themselves against the perceived threat, which could result in injury.
To understand your dog’s emotions you need to take into account all of the different ways they communicate as a package. If you consider only one part of the package, for example, a wagging tail, you may not be able to tell if your dog is happy or anxious. Learning to understand and respect their emotions will help you strengthen your relationship and bring it to a whole new level.