Most of the time what a dog is feeling seems pretty straightforward. When they’re happy there’s very little mistaking it. They wag their tails (or almost their entire body); bark their happy, excited bark; and they may even jump up or leap in the air. When they’re in guard mode or on alert, their hackles will raise, their ears are pinned back and their stance changes along with their bark. It’s kind of like the movie French Kiss starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline where Ryan’s character says: Happy - smile. Sad - frown. Use the corresponding face for the corresponding emotion. But sometimes there is more to a dog’s body language and behavior than you may be getting.
This may seem pretty obvious, but a dog that is happy, relaxed and comfortable in their surroundings will appear calm and completely at ease. Their muscles won’t be tense and they will have a peaceful or even oblivious air about them. Besides happily wagging their tail, they may have their tongue lolled out a bit with that sweet, loving look in their eyes showing you just how much they adore you and how happy they are to be in your presence. They’ll usually be standing with their legs loosely apart and the heads held high, unless they’re trying to nuzzle your lap for pets and kisses.
Agitation in Dogs
When a dog is agitated they can sometimes send mixed signals and it’s not always easy to tell if they’re angry, on alert, frightened or stressed. It’s during times like these or when they’re possibly in pain where it would be great to have a “dog speak” translator on hand so they could tell you what the heck is actually going on. Short of that, there are a few behavioral signs you can look for to give you a hint. The first thing to look for is body stance and whether or not their muscles are tense. If they are and their shoulders, chest and front legs have assumed a squared off position, something is wrong.
Frightened or Angry Dog
Besides the body language outlined above for a frightened or angry dog, canines can also assume an almost crouched position. If the front half of their body and head begins to lower slightly, their ears lay back and their tail starts to wag slowly (also in a slightly lowered position) this can mean the animal is debating a course of action that includes defensiveness or aggression. The tail wag can come right before they charge or even bite, so it can be pretty misleading. Be on guard if you see this type of behavior.
Misleading or Mixed Signals
The thing about it is that agitated barking may not be present with these other signs or it may be intermittent. They may even hop backwards a step or two and then advance again a step or two and throw their head back and let out a few raised barks. That, with the wagging tail, could be interpreted by some as a sign of being playful, but with all of the other signs, especially if there is a very low growl involved, fear on their part could turn into aggression as a means of protecting themselves or a loved one, so be aware of this if you have them around other people or animals and this occurs.
Telltale Dog Tail Signs
So much of how a dog communicates their emotions is through the tail. Another sign your dog is agitated is when he or she displays a raised tail that is almost quivering or vibrating it’s so stiff and erect. You’ll often see this behavior if they hear or see something that they consider a potential threat or as horning in on their turf. It could be something as innocuous as a squirrel or the mailman, but in their eyes it’s something to contend with. When this happens they can start huffing or snorting along with agitated pacing or prancing. This type of posturing usually means they’re going to take off on a dead run, if given the chance, to intercept the perceived intruder or drive them off. It’s a territorial thing.
Sadness or depression in dogs can manifest itself in different ways. And, yes, dogs can get depressed just like people. Dogs are capable of many of the same emotions we experience. If they've recently lost a loved one in their lives, either human or animal, they can suffer from feelings of loss akin to human emotions. Often times their enthusiasm or activity levels will be down, their interest in things that normally would appeal to them might be off and they may lose their appetite. They just generally appear withdrawn and they may even hang their heads and lay around all day. If this happens without any recent losses or upheavals, then take them to your vet, or if the symptoms persist too long.
Understanding Your Dog
The more you understand your dog the better you’ll be able to help make him or her feel at ease in any environment. As much as they want to protect you, they still look to you for protection and guidance. The more you can provide this the stronger the bond between the two of you will get.