Milwaukee Edition

Decoding Dog Body Talk

Three Signals of Anxiety

Poprotskiy Alexey/Shutterstock.com

Family dogs frequently accompany us on errands and outings away from their familiar home environment and we want them to enjoy these expeditions, so understanding their view of the world is important.

To a dog, every experience is either familiar or unfamiliar. The first time they encounter a new sound, place or person, they may feel anxious. We can help with the adjustment by introducing them slowly to each new experience and step aside to provide them distance or space to observe it first at their own pace.

Knowing the “tells” that signal when a dog is comfortable or uncomfortable goes a long way to a harmonious experience. Allison Culver, assistant director of The Lightfoot Way holistic animal learning center, in Houston, remarks, “Knowing how to communicate with your animal can save a lot of heartache.” With a bit of applied attention, we can readily learn to understand the changes in canine body posture and behavior that communicate their emotional state.

Start by observing the dog’s posture when they are relaxed at home. It’s likely that their weight is balanced on all four legs and their mouth is slightly open; movement is relaxed, loose and agile.

When a dog feels happy or playful, notice how their ears may perk up or tilt slightly forward. Their tail might rise and wag, and they may emit a cheerful bark. Using their visual and audio demeanor as a baseline prepares us to be alert for three secret tells that signal a change in their emotion.

Closing their mouth routinely occurs when a dog is unsure or anxious. When their mouth remains closed for a minute or more, it’s a sure clue that they need more time to process information.

Lip licking such as quick flicks of the tongue is meant to appease and may prevent an uncomfortable situation from escalating into anything resembling a confrontation. Dogs do it with each other and with us, too.

A look away that avoids direct eye contact likewise signals that a dog is urgently processing their current environment.

Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas, author of On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, identifies the lip licking and averting of the eyes as selfcalming behaviors. She affirms, “When dogs are stressed by the environment, they start using calming signals to ease the stress.”

When this happens, first try creating more space or distance between the dog and any perceived threat; this may return them to their body language norm. If not, consider using holistic calming aids like a properly mixed lavender essential oil spray or Bach Rescue Remedy Pet flower essences, keeping these well away from their face.

Also try mentally engaging the dog with learned cues. A quick game of sit, down, sit plus high-five allows them to engage in a familiar activity while they adjust to a new environment.

If the pet does not respond to normal cues and continues to display multiple stress signals for an extended period, leave the scene altogether. Their anxiety hasn’t been relieved. If it’s still important that the dog learns to enjoy the troubling environment, work with a professional trainer that uses positive reinforcement tools to aid the transition (see PetProfessionalGuild. com or apdt.com). The trainer will assist in creating a plan that allows the pet to adjust at a pace that allows them to remain comfortable.

By observing a dog’s posture, we can be confident of choosing mutually good outings.


Susan Briggs, of Houston, TX, is co-author of Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety & Fun, co-founder of The Dog Gurus and owner of Crystal Canine.


This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Natural Awakenings.

Edit ModuleShow Tags

More from Natural Awakenings

New Musical Yoga Studio Opening in Shorewood

Sacred Sound Yoga, a unique musical studio opening in October, will hold yoga classes that include sacred sound healing and beautiful original music played by owner Rosie Rain and her friends.

Santosha Yoga & Ayurveda Welcomes Swami Yatidharmananda

In September, Swami Yatidharmananda will travel from India to appear at Santosha Yoga & Ayurveda, in Delafield, to teach his unique practices of mindfulness, meditation and living a spiritual life of devotion.

Enjoy Free Yoga at Rise Yoga Studio’s Open House

Rise Yoga Studio is celebrating one year in Mequon with an open house from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., September 15.

Experience the Plant-Based Lifestyle at Vegan Sol Food & Drink Expo

The Vegan Sol Food & Drink Expo, an event celebrating all aspects of vegan lifestyles, takes place 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 22 at Nicolet High School, in Glendale.

School of Sound and Healing Fall Certification Program

Angel Light Center for the Healing Arts, a resource for health, healing and spiritual development, begins its School of Sound and Healing fall certification program November 2 through 4, in Elm Grove.

Heal the Past and Enjoy Present Happiness Through Mindfulness Workshop

On Wednesdays from October 17 through December 12, psychologist Susan Trafton will lead an eight-week class—Engage the Body, Open the Heart, Heal the Mind—at GreenSquare Integrative Health Care Center from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Natural Health Services Welcomes New Naturopathic Doctor

Dr. Mary Simon, a naturopathic doctor, is now accepting patients at Natural Health Services, located on Milwaukee’s East Side.

Open the Heart at 
Midwest Yoga and Kirtan Fest

Kirtan—call-and-response chants set to music—began in India centuries ago as a spiritual practice and a layman’s way to connect with the divine.

Letter from Publisher

Natural Awakenings is just one of many publications delivering cutting-edge information about natural, noninvasive, non-pharmaceutical health remedies presented by health and wellness advocates, scientists and researchers.

Dirt Houses Cancer-Protective Microbe

Soil contains bacteria that kills melanoma cancer cells, say Oregon State University researchers.

Doctors Underestimate Opioid Prescriptions

A survey of 109 emergency room doctors found they frequently underestimated how often they prescribed opioids and that they prescribed fewer when alerted to the situation.

Asthma Less Likely to Afflict Breastfed Kids

Dutch children that had been breastfed had a 45 percent lower incidence of asthma later in childhood.

Add your comment: