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A Head for Communication – Interpreting a Dog’s Mouth

A Head for Communication – Interpreting a Dog’s Mouth

It is generally an accepted fact that dogs, unless trained or prompted by an owner, do not communicate through words. Instead, in an effort to establish their needs, they employ quite a few subtle gestures and some that are quite obvious. Humans, however, can often overlook subtlety and instead insert their own subtext based on their wants, ignoring a canine companion’s instinctual drives. It is not done maliciously but often out of ignorance of what to even look for. How does one interpret Pablo’s slight adjustment to ear position? While a dog speaks with his whole body and body language must be taken within context, there are some facial expressions that a dog owner may wish to pay special attention to.

The Smile
Many of us never get to see a genuine dog ‘smile’ and when it happens it might be disconcerting the first few times. A happy, relaxed dog body, wagging tail, paws stamping for attention, and yet when you look down to lavish some affection, a mouth of teeth and bared gums is what greets you. Normally, this kind of toothy display is reserved for a warning, “back off,” the expression says but the dog’s body language screams the opposite. This can send mixed signals to a human but is not all that confusing if you take some other signs into account, too. Is there another animal, especially another dog, also vying for affection? Are you being forced to pet two dogs at once? A smile in this situation can very well mean, “Look, I am deferring to you more, pay all your attention to me.” You may find Pablo almost aggressively pushing the his sister Annie out of the way to get both of your hands on him alone. This kind of smile will probably be much more rare when attention is not being split.

A smile, which is usually marked by the corners of the mouth lifting, and when it is not accompanied by body language that clearly states otherwise, usually means there is no perceived threat and the dog is not trying to rock the boat. This action is rarely used by a dominant, or alpha dog who sees him or herself as equal to a human. Smiling can be reinforced through praise and petting, as well.

Speaking in Tongues
While the tongue is a major way dogs cool down, it can be more than just a heat regulator. Panting allows the canine to draw in air that rushes across the tongue and evaporates moisture, which in turn acts as a cooler for the rest of the body, lowering core temperatures. A tongue can also indicate stress in dogs though the signals are subtle and harder to read. With a little observational skill, you can catch the differences. A fully relaxed dog tongue is the sign of a calm dog. It drapes loosely with no odd curve and simply falls over the teeth and out of the mouth, large and floppy.

A spatulate tongue is one that the dog does not allow to fall loosely and instead it seems Pablo is actually holding it off and away from his teeth, causing an odd curve and giving the tongue a stiff appearance. It may look wider at the tip and certainly does not have that floppy, lolling look. This is an indication that Pablo is stressed, but like yawning, it’s not anything to really be too worried about. He may be “miffed” that he is expected to sit before leaving the house to go run around the backyard.

There may also be what some call tongue flicks, which are even subtler markers of some distress. While this is a behavior that isn’t entirely understood, it’s generally considered to be a self-calming action or, as in humans, a nervous action. Sometimes the tongue flick is very small, just over the lips, and other times it may cover the dog’s nose. The larger the lick, the more Annie may be struggling to calm herself in a situation that is taxing the nerves but not demanding an all-out flight or fight response. A pooch may be outside her comfort zone or settling herself down after a day of dodging the toddler. Humans can often help diffuse this condition by flicking their own tongues for the dog to see, or a combination of lip licks and yawns.

While eyes and ears are certainly easier for us to read, overlooking the finer points of dog communication can actually stress them further. They read us far better than we read them, but we can even the playing a field a bit if we just slow down and take the time not just to look at what our beloved furry friends are trying to tell us, but actually observe and interpret. Actions speak louder than words and in the canine world, that is a truism that can’t be overstated. Watch and learn. It can only strengthen the bond between your beloveds and you.