Understanding your German shepherd’s body language is crucial to building and maintaining a healthy relationship with your dog. Non-verbal communication provides vital information about their wellbeing and can even help you to communicate with your dog more clearly.
While commands build a verbal bridge between our two species, there is a limitation to the information your dog can give you through vocalization. Body language, however, can help to fill in the gaps.
In this guide, we will cover important body language cues that dogs often display. We will cover –
- The ears
- The mouth
- The tail
- The eyes
- Body Posture
When your shepherd’s ears relax, they relax! You will often see this when your dog settles in for the night after a long walk!
Pulled-Back Or Flat Against the Head
When your dog’s ears pull back, the general tone is negative. Dogs pull their ears back when they feel afraid or anxious, and it can also be a sign of aggression.
If your shepherd’s ears are standing (in a more rigid way than usual if your shepherd has erect ears,) they are listening!
When your dog’s ears angle forwards, it is a sign of arousal, but this arousal can be positive or negative.
The easiest way to determine whether your dog is positively or negatively aroused is to observe the situation. For example, has your dog seen its best friend heading toward the front door for a playdate? Or have they heard a strange and unfamiliar noise?
If you cannot infer anything from a situation, you can also observe other aspects of your dog’s body language. Are there any signs of aggression, or does your dog seem excited?
If your dog yawns once, it could be that they are only tired! Dogs yawn just like humans do!
If your dog yawns repeatedly, it is more likely a sign of stress, anxiety, or fear.
Licking the Air
If your dog is licking the air, the most likely reason is that they smell something delicious! Dogs and cats have an organ at the bottom of the nasal cavity called Jacobson’s organ. This organ allows for taste and scent to work in conjunction. So, when your dog licks the air, they are trying to get a better “noseful” of the odor. This licking to smell action is the Flehmen response.
Dogs also lick the air for other reasons that are a little less common, such as:
- Tooth or gum pain
- An obstruction or foreign body in the mouth or teeth
- A partial seizure
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Air licking is almost always due to the Flehmen response, but if you notice any signs or symptoms of the other issues mentioned above, it is time to make an appointment with your vet!
Licking the Nose
There are a few reasons why dogs lick their noses, so it is crucial to look for any other cues that confirm why your dog is licking their nose.
Common reasons for nose licking include:
- To wet their nose and improve their sense of smell
- Irritation of the nose
- To help them to cool down
Less common causes of nose licking include:
- Seizure activity
- A foreign body in the nose
Panting can be a sign that your dog is tired, overheated, stressed, or anxious.
Panting is another bodily cue that requires you to collect more information from the environment. For example, has your dog just come home from a walk, or has their favorite person left the house?
Dogs will often smack their lips when they are stressed or anxious. You will also notice your dog licks their lips very quickly as they smack their lips.
In exceedingly rare instances, lip-smacking can be a symptom of seizure activity.
Teeth baring is one of the most recognized non-verbal cues that a dog gives. When a dog is baring their teeth, they are preparing for a confrontation. When your dog is baring their teeth, you will notice that they have its lips pulled upwards and their nose wrinkled. You are also highly likely to hear a deep growl or snarl.
Dogs bare their teeth to frighten away a threat or to assert their dominance. Essentially, this means that your dog may be preparing for confrontation because they are afraid or out of aggression.
Licking Your Mouth
Younger dogs will often lick your mouth as a sign of submission.
Incredibly young puppies may also lick your mouth out of instinct – their wolf pup ancestors would lick their mom’s mouth as she regurgitated meat for them to eat. This behavior is like “denning” – a primal instinctual behavior that is stronger in some dogs than others.
Lastly, your dog may be licking your mouth because you taste nice – whether it is flavored lip gloss or sugar from a donut, your pup wants in on the fun!
The most common reason for teeth chattering is excitement or anticipation! You frequently see this behavior right before dinnertime!
There is a misconception that a wagging tail means a happy dog – but it can mean just the opposite!
Fast tail wagging is a sign of excitement!
Slow wagging is often a sign of uncertainty – as though your dog were saying: “I think I am excited about this, but I am not sure what it is…”
When your dog’s tail wags in short wags – usually when their tail is hanging downward – this is a sign of anxiety.
When your dog wags their tail with broad strokes, it is because they are happy!
Tucked Between the Legs
When the tail tucks between the legs is a clear indication of fear, concern, anxiety, or submission. Some dogs will tuck their tail so far between their legs that it curls underneath them.
When your dog holds their tail out horizontally, it is usually a sign of defensive aggression. In this instance, your dog is saying “hey…wait a minute…I don’t know if I like this, but I’ll stand my ground.”
When your dog is holding their tail high, it is a sign of being alert. You will often see this in dogs if you ask, “What’s that?!” in a concerned tone of voice.
Downward is a natural position for the Shepherd tail. So long as the tail is not pinned to the bottom or curled under the back end, a downward held tail means a relaxed dog!
Wide eyes – often referred to as “whaling” – mean discomfort, stress, or anxiety. If you look closely at pictures where young children are inappropriately climbing on dogs, you will often see the dog’s eyes “whaling” or showing a large amount of white around the eye.
When your dog has dilated pupils, they may be feeling fearful or aroused by some external stimulus like a wild bear in their yard.
The Body Posture
A dog that is crouching is fearful. A crouching dog will often walk away with a slinking motion – something we often correlate with shame or worry.
Sitting With Their Back To You
A dog is not snubbing you when they turn their back on you! Sitting with their back to you is actually a sign that your dog trusts you and feels safe that you will not try to attack while their back is turned.
Crouched While Leaning Forward With Front Legs Extended
This pose is harder to explain than it is to imagine, so imagine an aggressive dog crouching with its legs extended forwards you and its front end lower than its back while keeping the feet firmly on the floor. This is a dog that is aggressively posturing, and they may attack.
Leaning Down With the Bottom Up and Weight on the Front Paws
On the other hand, a dog that sticks its bottom in the air and lowers the front half of its body with its front legs outstretched is inviting you to play! You will also notice a wagging tail!
When we talk about an arched body, we often think about cats, but dogs do this too. A dog will most often take this pose when they are afraid, and their ears will pin back, and their head will face downward.
Stiff Standing Position
A dog that takes on a stiff standing position is an alert dog aroused by an external stimulus., but this dog may also be fearfully aggressive depending on the situation.
Laying On the Back With Belly Exposed
Dogs roll onto their back and show off their soft belly as a sign of submission. If your dog shows their belly to you, it is also an invitation for belly rubs!
Conclusion / Summary
Learning to interpret your dog’s body language helps you become a better pet parent, and it is a means for you to provide a better quality of life for your dog. Just do not forget, non-verbal cues do not happen in isolation, and sometimes you will need to put your detective hat on to get to the bottom of your pet’s non-verbal communication.