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How to Read a Dog's Facial Expressions

Do you know how to read your dog’s facial expressions? Learn how dogs communicate with their eyes, mouths, and facial expressions.

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
May 6, 2014
Episode #040

Last time I devoted an article to body language, I focused on the tail. This week, a look at your dog’s other end – her face.

Do Dogs Make Facial Expressions?

Gaze into your dog’s eyes. Actually, hold off a second. Among canines, maintaining direct eye contact often signals challenge and confrontation. Hang around a dog park long enough to see a scuffle or two break out. You may catch one or both of the dogs involved giving each other a hard, wide-eyed, unblinking stare just before the quarrel erupts. Or one dog may blink and avert his gaze. That signal often defuses tensions. Then both dogs may shake their bodies as if shaking off water. Scuffle averted, may peace prevail.

How to Read a Dog’s Eyes

Say you find yourself face to face with a dog whose body language expresses challenge--his tail is high and curled tightly over his back, and he’s oriented head-on to you. He watches you with his pupils dilated, and he’s not blinking. That unblinking gaze signifies one tense dog. Direct eye contact from you may well light his fuse. How to retreat safely depends on too many factors to go into here, but in general, backing away, with your gaze averted, is a good tactic.

Eye Contact May Spook a Dog

Direct eye contact gets a reaction from many a skittish or timid dog, too. One classic scenario is that the dog approaches you to sniff. Her body weight is back over her haunches, not evenly distributed or toward her front legs, and she stretches her neck in your direction. You look down, your eyes meet hers, and all of a sudden she’s backing up, barking fiercely.

You can best help a shy dog grow comfortable with you by pretending she’s not there at all. This is very unprimate--nice humans like to encourage shy people by inviting them to talk and drawing them in. Alas, our human courtesy often misfires with dogs.

What Does It Mean When Your Dog Squints or Shows the Whites of His Eyes?

Squinting, the way you might squint when you smile, generally reflects relaxation or happy excitement. Watch the whites of a dog’s eyes for clues to a very different frame of mind. Sometimes, the whites are visible just incidentally--for instance, a resting dog may be disinclined to move his head to look at whatever’s caught his interest. A photo of my dog Juniper in that state appears at the bottom of this article. More often, though, a dog showing the whites of his eyes is anxious and may even be about to snap.

A dog showing the whites of his eyes is often anxious and may even be about to snap.

Trainers call this look “whale eye.” The whole package includes tense facial muscles; the dog’s mouth may be tightly closed, or you may see teeth, with a curled lip or a snarl.

Commonly, whale eye marks a dog who’s been backed into a corner or who’s guarding a food bowl or a prize chew. Approach only if a dog bite is on your shortlist of experiences you’d like to have that day. If you need to move the dog immediately, try inviting him to go for a walk. Once he’s gone from the spot, his prize should be cleared away. And your next call, of course, is to a good behavior specialist.

How to Read a Dog’s Mouth

I’ve mentioned a tightly closed mouth as a sign of doggy tension. If your dog naturally carries her mouth closed, but the muscles of her lips and muzzle are soft, you needn’t be concerned. And not all tension is bad from the dog’s point of view, of course. You may notice your smiley dog’s jaws close up when she draws a bead on a squirrel, for example. In that particular heightened state, your dog probably feels pretty good. The squirrel’s opinion may differ.

How you respond to the sight of your dog’s mouth going from open to shut should depend on what elicited the change. If your dog is just watching something with close interest, no biggie. But suppose, for example, your dog lunges at other dogs on leash. When his jaw shuts tensely, he’s near the limit of his self-control, too close to a dog he finds provocative. Next, the corners of his lips will move forward, and then watch out! Thar he blows. Increase distance from the other dog at the first sign of tension on your dog’s face, and save both of you a lot of stress.

How to Read a Dog’s Lips

By the way, it’s always worth watching the corners of dogs’ lips--the commissures. These are such revealing body parts, and few people know how to read them. A tense dog whose commissures push forward is heading for the offensive. If you see commissures pushed back, think fear. Aggression isn’t necessarily imminent, either way, but be aware of what emotional tone you’re dealing with.

Finally, a tensely closed mouth may indicate physical discomfort. I know my old, arthritic lady dog is having an especially good day when she doesn’t hold her mouth shut but instead lets it open softly on our walks.

Refusing Food Indicates Tension

Many a client believes her dog isn’t food motivated because he won’t eat outdoors. Indeed, there are dogs for whom other motivators often trump food, and don’t be surprised if your well-fed dog is more interested in chasing rabbits than in that same-old, same-old kibble in your hand. Often, though, it’s a worried dog who won’t eat outdoors, or who swallows treats mechanically without seeming to notice them as they go down.

What Do a Dog’s Lip Licking and Drooling Mean?

Lip licks are distinct from a dog’s satisfied licking of her chops after she eats something tasty. A quick in-and-out flick of a dog’s tongue over her lips is generally an appeasement signal. Watch a dog being walked on a choke collar or being trained by the old-school leash-pop method. You’ll probably see the dog lick her lips every time the collar tightens abruptly or the trainer jerks on the leash. Appeasement isn’t a bad thing in every context, and some dogs offer it much more readily than others. But appeasement gestures delivered over and over and over again, in any context, tell you that something in the situation is producing an unhappy dog.

Last but not least, watch for profuse drool not elicited by a nearby barbecue. Constant profuse drool suggests that your dog is a Mastiff or maybe that he needs to see a vet. But acute drooling that isn’t typical for your dog may indicate significant fear. When you interpret this or any of the other signals I’ve discussed, remember to look at the whole dog, not only at one part.

Happy Dog Face

And the happy dog face? Think relaxed, smiley, squinty, blinky. In sleepy contentment, your dog’s facial muscles will be soft and quiet, never tense and stiff. In happy excitement, her face may be full of movement. Does somebody want to play? Have her ears mooshed? Or just say hi? Who’s got a big old face right on the end of her head?

As for The Dog Trainer, follow me on Facebook, email me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. Your questions and comments may appear in future episodes. Bye for now, and thanks for listening!

Resources

Sophie Collins. Tail Talk: Understanding the Secret Language of Dogs (2007).
Barbara Handelman. Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook (2008).
Brenda Aloff. Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide (2005).
Sarah Kalnajs. The Language of Dogs (DVDs; 2006).
My friend Eric Goebelbecker’s nifty little article on dog body language.

Canine Body Language: A Lesson in Understanding Your Labrador

Photo of Juniper

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