Bunch of dogs for a walk looking happy
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How to read dog body language during walks

By Emilie Heyl Content Writer

Updated on the

Walking your dog is part of everyday life when you're dog owner. You grab the essentials; treats and poop bags and head out the door. Understanding your dog's body language when you are out for a walk is crucial. Thankfully, our dogs tell us all we need to know, we just have to look for it.

Most of us would appreciate a less than eventful walk, we may see other people and other dogs, interactions would go swimmingly, and we’d return home knowing all is right with the world.  But what if that doesn’t happen? How do we know if our pooch isn’t happy? And what do we need to do in that situation?

Body language of a happy dog

A happy, carefree dog is fluid in movement. Their eyes are soft. Their ears lie how they always do. They may be interested in what’s going on around them, but indifferent and have a que sera sera aura.

Body language of a stressed dog

A stressed dog can present in a few different ways. They may make themselves appear smaller and cower. They may walk tentatively in an attempt to be unseen.

A stressed dog may start to pant or salivate excessively.

A stressed dog who is fearful of what may happen next may become aggressive. Their hackles may be up, they may be curling their lip or snarling. A dog who wants the threat to go away may lunge or bark.

If you notice a fixed or stiff body with wide eyes, this pooch is not happy about something.  Their tail may wag still but watch for other behavioural cues. A happy dog will wag their tail, but their body will be soft, they may even play bow.  A stressed dog will still wag their tail, but it will be slower and may hang lower than usual.

So, we know what to look for, but there are certain interactions or situations which make these behaviours more likely.

Meeting other dogs

All dogs are different. Your dog may be the most sociable dog in the county, but just like you can’t be expected to like every human you come into contact with, dogs may not like every dog they come into contact with.

Dogs can become nervous, wary, scared or simply threatened by other dogs for a range of reasons. They may have had a bad experience with a dog of that size before, or they may not have even seen a dog of that size before.

Take control over your dog’s behaviour

Take care with all interactions. Be mindful of the reversing away from other dogs, or the tentative walks towards them. If your dog starts barking at another dog, remove them from the situation. Do not correct it by shouting or yanking on the leash. Your dog is telling you they aren’t happy. Remove them and work on introducing dogs from a distance again. If your dog is usually fine with other dogs, it could simply be a case that they don’t like this dog. And do you know what? That is absolutely allowed. Don’t make a big fuss about avoiding them, stay calm and just wander in the opposite direction.

Walking your dog is great for his training

Walks can be ideal settings to work on some basic dog training, like doggie self-control.

For instance, some owners struggle when their dogs are barking to get at other dogs (for nothing more than play). We know that dogs learn through conditioning; consequences teach them behaviour. What your dog learns in this situation is, they bark, you let them go see the other dog.  Not ideal etiquette.

Instead you can work on asking them to stay calm, and then reward your dog for his calmness by allowing him to play with another dog. So, when you see a dog they usually play with, ask your dog to sit or lie down. The reward is then playing with their friend. Increase the time before you let them play; start at 3 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds and so on. It helps to explain to the other owner what you are trying to achieve too.

If you have a particularly nervous dog, it can help to plan out less-stimulating routes. Again, be mindful if your dog sinks to the ground or tries to make themselves smaller. They aren’t coping. An even quieter route may be more appropriate until you have worked on introducing the particular things that they find scary!

Ours dogs will tell us all we need to know when out on a walk, we just need to know what we’re looking for, and to keep paying attention! Thankfully, as dog owners we get rather adept at picking up even the most subtle cues something isn’t right. The long and the short of it, along with the typical behaviours mentioned here, just watch for anything that is out of character for your pooch. Leave the situation you are in and reflect on what was going on. You’ll be much better equipped next time.

Written by John Woods Founder of All Things Dogs - Dog breeds, Training and Behavior
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