Look, Ma! My Body’s Talking to You!

I just read a book of poems with my five-year-old son that was primarily about bodily functions.  So, even though it’s fresh on my mind, this post is NOT about “that” kind of talking from your body!

It’s about how your dog broadcasts, at every moment, where he or she might be along that continuum described in the previous post,  Do Dogs Bite Out of the Blue?.   So, unless you have a suggestion box in your home – where your dog can fill out a satisfaction survey, stamp it with a paw print and drop it in – body language is what you’ve got to go on.

Luckily, it’s all right there to see.

If you want to see it clear as day, check out Colleen Pelar’s new book, Kids and Dogs, A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families.  It’s a small book with full-color photos, and you can even carry around to show your friends.  I’ve mentioned Patricia McConnell’s book, For the Love of a Dog, before, and it’s a great one for really understanding what dogs are saying.  See also the Doggone Safe website for a great slide show and lots more information.  I love how they boiled it down to: “Pet Only Happy Dogs” and you can clearly see which dogs look happy and which do not wish to be disturbed or distracted from what they are doing.

For the quick version, see below where I matched up how particular body parts – ears, eyes, focus of attention, mouth — look different in happy dogs vs. unhappy or worried dogs.  There’s also a terrific video at the end.

Before you start, though, 3 things:

  1. Even if a dog does appear to be happy with a small child’s attentions, I always end it after, at most, a couple of strokes.  “All done!  Thanks!” and it’s on to doing something else.   I never rely on looking at the dog’s body language to tell me when to stop the interaction.  I stop it proactively.  So, it’s not enough to scrutinize the body language and say the dog looks happy so it’s OK.  Remember, the child is also establishing habits (for better or worse) and is likely getting “magnetized” to the dog if you encourage a lot of contact.  (See separate post to come on how children get magnetized and how to prevent it.)
  2. If I had to pick one thing to check with a dog, it would be the dog’s level of responsiveness.  If the dog cannot easily turn and look at you happily when you say his or her name or make a friendly kissy sound, you absolutely must change the situation.
  3. Wagging tails and licking faces are NOT good indicators on their own of how a dog might be feeling.  Happy dogs often wag tails and lick faces, but so might anxious or even overly-aroused dogs.  Don’t be fooled into thinking the dog is “kissing” the baby and, thus, “loves” the baby and will know exactly how to behave around the baby forevermore.  Watch this video and look past the licking to see all the other signs that the dog is NOT comfortable:  ears back, stiff body posture, lip licking, head turned away, body “shake-off,” yawning,  tight, closed mouth, no response to owner praise.  Licking and wagging NEVER override the big picture.




Body Part Match-Up








Unhappy/Worried Dogs — have ears that are pinned or pulled back with muscle tension

Happy/Relaxed Dogs — have relaxed, natural-hanging ears or ears cocked towards you to listen









Unhappy/Worried Dogs – often have eyes open wide, showing the whites and/or “wild” eyes darting all around

Happy/Relaxed Dogs – have “squinty” eyes or what you would describe as “soft” eyes looking to make a connection with you










Unhappy/Worried Dogs — often look away, although worried dogs may also look to the adults for help when they aren’t enjoying a child’s attention

Happy/Relaxed Dogs — look at their people and make a connection, it’s like they’re part of the conversation










Unhappy Dogs…Oops, I mean unhappy George Clooney has a tight, closed mouth

Happy George Clooney has an open, relaxed mouth

Same with these dogs:







Finally, here is a well-done video showing happy body language, uncomfortable and worried body language and warning sign body language.  There is no narration, but I usually tell people in class to consider for each dog, “Would you hesitate to reach your hand out to greet that dog?”  Then, consider that many toddlers would put their FACES right up to almost every one of these dogs.  Young children just don’t get it and they have no understanding of danger.  Even a dog lunging and barking might make some two-year-olds laugh and a scared, hiding dog might elicit a hug from a little girl.

Don’t expect even other adults to see these warnings until you show them what to look for.




“There’s a downside to this knowledge, because now you’re going to join the hapless group of people whose hearts stop beating on a regular basis when they see a little boy across the street petting a new dog in the neighborhood, and the dog’s mouth has closed and his body has gone still and silent and the adults continue to chat on in oblivion while you wait for doom to fall, teeth to flash, and little Johnny to start screaming. Sorry. Ignorance can be bliss. But knowledge can avoid problems, so if you’re a witness to a scene like the one above, you can call Johnny over to you or try to ease the tension by calling, “Who wants to go on a walk?” You’ll also know to tell a visitor to stop petting your own dog if your dog’s mouth shuts and her body goes still. If the general public learned to look for this important warning signal, tens of thousands of bites could be avoided every year.” From For The Love of a Dog, by Patricia McConnell

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  1. Nice post. I really like the idea of checking the dog’s level of responsiveness by trying to get his attention. If the dog is feeling stressed and maybe “trapped” because it just doesn’t occur to him to walk away you are kind of giving him an “out” by getting his attention.

    1. Hi Mary – thanks for the comment! I do really like to check in with the dog in all kinds of situations. A little kissy sound is a great way to “take the temperature,” so to speak of the situation. If the dog would usually turn and look at you but this time can’t respond, that’s good information to have before allowing the situation to continue as is. Did you notice in the video how the dog, Sonic, showed little or no acknowledgment of the woman’s praise? I definitely like to see dogs take notice when their people are talking to them, even if it’s just a glance and a wag to say, “Yes, I AM a good dog, aren’t I?”

  2. Nice job on the body language. Love the videos too. The Pit Bull Attack had me on the edge of my seat and was a terrific lesson in what can happen in an instant even with a parent very close by… yet I was grateful not to see an actual attack!

    1. Thanks, Linda. The “pitbull attacks baby” video is just one I linked to on You Tube. I couldn’t remove the title. I believe it was titled that way as a joke because it was supposed to be demonstrating how much the dog loves the baby. There are a bunch of videos like that on You Tube with similar titles. It’s an illustration, though, of the blind spot with dogs and babies. If you assume/desire that your dog loves your baby, you are going to be looking through that filter and may very well miss clear signs that the dog is NOT comfortable.

  3. That’s very true. I have a dog who stresses in unfamiliar locations. One of the ways I can tell if he’s getting too stressed is if he won’t (can’t) respond when I talk to him.
    Most of my friends are grandparents and I see some scary situations between their dog and visiting grandbabies. Just frightens me to death.
    I’m looking forward to your post on kids getting “magnitized” to dogs, very interesting idea.

    1. Years ago, I was with another dog trainer friend at a park with my dog back when she used to be more reactive to other dogs. She was eyeing a loose dog across the park and I cued her to sit. My intention was to check her responsiveness + give her something else she could do to change the situation for the better (b/c I would have given her a treat). My friend questioned that approach, saying that it was adding more stress and confusion to the situation. That’s when I switched to using more of an orienting sound or my informal “Ready?” cue when I wanted to check in with my dog.

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