I often explain how our energy is created by intention times emotion, and how the same words delivered with the same emotion could have a completely different meaning because of the intent.
I’m sure you understand how human intention and emotion work because you experience them both yourself every day. But how can you tell what a dog’s emotions and intentions are?
Luckily, dogs cannot hide either one from us. We are the ones who may not understand how clearly the dog is communicating. For a dog, emotion is displayed through body language, while intention is displayed through motion.
When a dog is not in a calm state, it only has three instinctual movements: fight, flight, or avoidance. In fight mode, the dog moves forward, and in flight mode it runs away. A dog may or may not move away in avoidance, but it will do everything else to not face the situation at hand.
Fight, flight, and avoidance are the traditional terms that animal behaviorists use, but they might be somewhat misleading because of the connotations they have. Another way to think of them is as advance, retreat, and ignore.
An excited dog and an aggressive dog may both move forward toward a person or other animal, but one of them is playful and the other one is threatening. Likewise, a dog may run away in fear or it may run away to start a game of chase with another dog.
This is where the dog’s emotional state comes into it and combines with the dog’s intention to create the dog’s overall energy and, as I mentioned above, dogs express their emotions through body language.
Every part of the dog is engaged, but the important ones to watch are the head, ears, tail, and back. The higher a dog’s head, ears, and tail are, the more dominant it is feeling, and the lower they are, the more submissive or uncertain the dog is feeling.
Another thing to watch for is tension, particularly in the dog’s back and legs. The more tense a dog is, the higher its energy level, like a spring being pulled taut. In both cases, they reach a point where they snap — the spring shoots back to its regular size, and the dog lunges forward.
A good example of a “fight” intention modified by body language to create positive energy is when a dog does a play bow to engage another dog. The motion is forward, but the front of the dog’s body is low to the ground. The intention is excitement but the emotion is friendly, so the energy is playful.
Here’s an opposite example: a dog may have its head, ears, and tail all raised. Perhaps it’s showing its teeth, and maybe the hackles on its back are up as well, but it is slowly backing away. The body language is showing aggression, but the intent is flight. Despite the aggressive display, this is a dog that is terrified of something.
It can be easy to misinterpret a dog’s energy if we don’t consider both body language and intention. Some dogs express extreme submission by pulling their lips back to show their teeth. Now, a lot of people would see the dog’s teeth and think that it’s about to attack, but they’re missing the rest of what the dog is saying.
If a dog shows its teeth but they’re together, the ears are pulled back along the head, the eyes are squinting, the dog lowers its body and leans away, then the dog is actually retreating submissively and practicing avoidance. Likewise, a dog may come charging at you, but if its body is relaxed, its tail is level and wagging, and there’s no tension in the body, then it is showing excitement.
Dogs can’t tell us in words what they’re thinking and feeling because they don’t have to. They’re expressing themselves constantly through motion and body language — intention times emotion equals energy. Once we learn how to understand these, a whole world of communication with our dogs opens up.
Stay calm, and listen to your dog!
Are you able to read your dog’s body language? Tell us what you know in the comments.