• Holly

TTL 1: Canine Communication Part 2

If you haven't read the Intro to Training The Leader, do so HERE.

If you haven't read Canine Communication Part 1, do so HERE.

Pre-curser: As we move through the body, I will make mention of cues that we haven't gone over yet. It will be in the context of "I see this cue in conjunction with these other ones". So feel free to skip around to make sure you understand all the cues.

Okay, let's jump in.

I'd like to start at the head and move our way down through the body ending on the tail.


Just like with humans, dog eyes can deliver a variety of different messages. The two I'm mentioning below are in addition to your dog's relaxed, bright, or tired eyes.

Whale Eye - This is when you can see the whites around your dog's iris'. Please note, some dogs will often show the whites in regular situations where the following is not the case. This is where knowing your dog's unique signals is important in understanding what is going on.

This is a calming signal which may mean that your dog is uncomfortable/stressed/anxious. I will often see this in conjunction with freezing or a head/body turn and a side glance. Another place I see this lots is when I play tug-a-war with Duke and he gets a little too into it. When I notice his whale eye coming out, I end play and let him calm down.

Excessive Blinking or Squinting - This can be another sign that your dog is uncomfortable. I see this lots in those "cute" videos where the owners are telling their dogs off for getting in the garbage or what have you. The excessive blinking or squinting the dog is doing is showing me that the dog is uncomfortable with what the human is doing - their tone of voice and energy all being directed at them. I see this often in conjunction with nose licks and ears back.


Ears can be tricky to read as they vary so much between breeds, but I will do my best to give a general analysis.

Stiff/forward - This is telling me that the dog is alert and aroused. I see this lots when a dog is moving toward/staring at something of interest that is exciting - something to sniff, another person, another dog, something to chase etc. Funnily enough, this is the first thing I notice when I see a dog pulling forward on the leash. I will often see this in conjunction with a forward-leaning stance, big chest, raised tail, high head.

Be wary if your dog is moving into the overly excited or aroused state and displaying this kind of body language. This may be a sign that your dog is too excited for the environment that it is walking into it. Having said that, when I see working dogs work (herding, PSA etc) I also see this body language and it is often encouraged. Just another example of why you need to know the whole story before jumping to conclusions.

Perked Ears - This is more a move through state showing that you/some outside stimulus have caught your dog's attention. The main difference to me is the body language portrayed by the rest of the dog. With Stiff/forward ears often comes a stiff body, in perked ears the body is more often relaxed.

Down Ears - This is one where I'm not sure that I can confidently explain what it means. But where I see it is when I come home and Duke comes and greets me at the door with his ears pulled down slightly. It is often accompanied by a dog smile and a relaxed wagging tail. I see it as a sign of respect. He is greeting a higher ranking member of his pack

In this video, Duke shows at least 4 different body language cues in 5 seconds:

  1. Yawn. I had just gotten him up, made him sit, tried to take a video, laid him down, took another video and so on. So his yawn is a bit of a release from all the commands I gave him.

  2. Ears down. You see his ears relax down a bit before he

  3. Turns his head slightly away from me. It's a toss-up between whether this was him wanting to put his head down to go back to sleep or disengaging from the crazy camera phone and energy I was sending towards him. But the added little side-eye look makes me think it's the second option

  4. His ears perk up when I say his name spiking his interest.

Stiff Back Ears - Ears that are pinned back is a sign that your dog is tense/unsure and maybe even frightened. If you see this I would suggest giving the dog a little more space, if not physically then energetically. This is often seen in conjunction with lots of other calming signals. In the photo, we see the body leaning away, a paw lift, whale eye, and I bet you $10 that that dog would be nose licking as well.

Relaxed Down and Back Ears - This is what I look for when doing an on-leash pack walk with the dogs. This often comes with a lowered head and relaxed tail. To me this shows that the dog has settled into a migratory, calm, focused energy and has respect for the Pack Leader.


The position of your dogs head in relation to their body and even in relation to other people/dogs around them can show you a lot about their intention and energetic state

Mavis with ears back and a lowered head.

Head Held High - This shows me that the dog is any of the following: alert, aroused, confident etc.

Head Lowered - This is very situational as to what it may mean. It could be a sign of a dog being unsure or scared, but it could also be a sign of a relaxed and focused dog happy with its surroundings. I would take more cues from the rest of the body and face to see what was going on. If unsure/scared, the dog may also be turning its head and/or body away and freezing. If the dog is relaxed, I would see a relaxed body and maybe a softly waging low tail.

Head Turning Away - This is a calming signal meant to disengage with the stimulus. You can see this in all of those "cute" dog videos where the owner comes in for a hug or kiss. The dog quite often turns its head away very clearly telling the owner "I'm not comfortable with this". If accompanied by whale eye and showing of teeth - you better move away or else risk getting the kind of kiss that will send you to the emergency room!

Here is a video of a dog turning its head away when the owner catches it looking at his food. If you look closely you can also see the dog squinting its eyes. So don't be fooled, this is a calming signal!

Placing Head Overtop Another Dog - In dog society, placing your head over another dog's head or body is very clear communication of "dominance" between dogs. This tiny little movement has the potential to cause fights or kindle life-long friendships. Whoa, right? To figure out which, you better know the personalities of the dogs involved.

Example: Duke is a more dominant dog. I had a dog client put his head over Duke's back once. I believe that the client's intention was to establish that he was 'head dog' so that they could play together with that relationship defined. Duke, however, took serious offence that some dog thought he was higher up on the food chain than him and delivered a correction in the form of a bark and showing his teeth. This very clearly said, "that's not cool with me, bro". If Duke had been a less, well-socialized dog and the client been more willing to assert himself, that interaction could have easily turned into a fight.

Example: There is a really beautiful YouTube video of dogs playing below. Right before play is initiated, the more dominant dog quickly puts his head overtop the more submissive dog's head. Because the other dog was very clearly submissive and very happy to follow the leader, the dominant dog started to play. When they are able to clearly establish their relationship with each other like that, play is respectful and fun.

1:50 is where the slow-motion breakdown of the start of play, including the head on to of head, begins. I would suggest watching the whole video for tons of body language cues!

We are going to wrap up this segment of dog body language. Stay tuned for Part 3!

Until next time, keep your eyes peeled for Body Language cues in your dog! Happy trails,

Holly, Duke and, Jax