Reading Nonverbal Cues from Your Pets

Behavior and Training  •  Pam Karkow  •  Friday, May 15, 2020

I was surprised to hear the back door slam shut as my husband came home early from his morning walk with our dog. “Hattie just kept looking over at me with these squinty little eyes after we had only walked a mile,” he said. “I figured she’d had enough.” My husband usually walks Hattie five miles every other day, so she is no stranger to long walks. But that morning was a particularly hot one, even for humans, so I could understand why Hattie, with her fur coat, had wanted to call it a day. I am thankful my husband is up to speed on the nonverbal cues our dog gives. Walking any farther in the hot weather may have resulted in heat exhaustion for her.

I’ve often said about our dogs, “If only they could tell me what’s wrong!” When they’re whining at the back door, but they just came back in from going potty, or when they’re staring out the window barking at some unseen object, I just wish they could talk to me! But alas, since I don’t think we’ll be communicating with our dogs using English anytime soon, we must depend on their body language. Below, three behaviors your dog may exhibit, what they mean, and why you must take the cues to heart.

Acting Withdrawn 

Most of the time, you will recognize when your dog is in pain. Trouble getting to his feet, avoiding stairs, and flinching when you reach out to pet him are undeniable signs that something is not quite right. But sometimes it is not so obvious that your dog is in pain. Dogs are masters at hiding their symptoms. But if your dog is acting withdrawn, is less energetic than normal, or is avoiding interaction with you, those are signs he may not be feeling his best.

Understanding your dog’s nonverbal cues when pain is involved is important, especially if your dog is undergoing any kind of surgery. Dr. William Tranquilli, Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine, explains how being cognizant of your dog’s pain can help doctors better manage it. “We veterinarians must really tune in to what our clients tell us about their dog’s behavior and activity, and partner with the client, to effectively address the dog’s needs for pain management,” says Dr. Tranquilli.

Giving the Whale Eye

You know the look. It’s akin to the look a teenager gives when you’ve embarrassed him.  Whale eye occurs when the white portion of your dog’s eye shows in his profile, at the corner or rim of his eye. When your dog looks at you like this, he’s not embarrassed (usually), he’s feeling anxious or defensive. Don’t ignore this one! A dog who gives the whale eye is usually alerting his owner to the fact that he is feeling stressed or uncomfortable. He may be silently pleading for you to take him away from a situation, or let him have some alone time. Listen to your dog to avoid a meltdown or aggressive reaction to stimuli.

Squinting Eyes or Exaggerated Yawning

When Hattie’s eyes turned into little slits, it was a clear indicator that she was overheated and tired. She was ready for the walk to be over! Similarly, a dog who is yawning excessively--a prolonged yarn that is more intense than a sleepy yawn--that is a sign that he is uncomfortable or anxious. It is a good idea to remove your dog from the stressor when you notice him displaying these behaviors. Lynn Buzhardt, DVM, suggests finding a quiet place for your dog to regroup and rest. She also recommends not overly comforting your dog. “This will only confirm that his fears are justified and may make him less confident in the future.” she cautions.

Know Your Dog’s “Normal”

To read the cues your dog is giving you through nonverbal means, it is necessary for you to have a good grasp on what is “normal” for your dog. Spending time with your dog and getting to know how he reacts to his environment and other people and animals will not only strengthen the bond you share, it will also help you to identify the meaning associated with his behavior. 

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