Dogs can’t speak but they try to communicate with humans all the time. They have a complex language of nonverbal communication that can tell us when they’re happy or sad, fearful or angry, confident or nervous.
Canine body language is the sum of a dogs facial expressions and body postures that communicate their emotions and intentions to those around them. It’s up to us to learn how to interpret this language.
But why is understanding your Labrador so important? Because it’s vital that you know when your Labrador’s worried or fearful, insecure or scared, annoyed or angry.
If you can recognize the signs that show these emotions you’ll be able to reassure and protect your lab when he needs it and adjust your behavior to interact more considerately and safely if he’s feeling angry or aggressive.
This is a very useful skill to have!
This article will teach you how to analyze your Labradors facial expressions and body postures to determine how your Lab feels and what he’s thinking.
Canine Body Language Broken Down into Separate Body Parts
Before discussing how to interpret the overall postures and gestures of your Labrador, it’s useful to first break down and discuss the different body parts that you need to take note of, especially the facial expressions and the way the tail is held.
Studying the component parts of canine body language will teach you the skills to take note of every area of your lab before deciding on how he’s feeling. It’s important you look at every body part, then add this up to the whole dog because there are some subtle differences that could be misread.
It’s in The Eyes
Just as you can a human, you can learn a lot from reading what’s in your Labradors eyes. Whether they’re staring hard at you, looking away, are wide-eyed or squinting can all say something about how they feel.
- Normal, almond-shaped eyes: Your Labrador’s feeling relaxed and happy.
- Wide, rounded eyes: This will usually show feeling threatened, fearful or stressed.
- Squinting eyes: When a dog is feeling in pain or is sick, they will often squint their eyes…but they could also be feeling submissive or tired. You need to assess the overall situation.
- Staring straight at you: If your Labrador’s staring directly at you with a tense…or intense…facial expression, it’s very likely a threat and it’d be wise to slowly look away. This is different to looking directly at you when relaxed and happy as they learn it’s OK to do this, when wanting attention or to play.
- Looking away: A dog that looks away is one that doesn’t want to look threatening or aggressive. It’s a sign of politeness, of being submissive. But it can also mean they’re nervous about the situation they’re in and could be feeling fearful.
- ‘Whale eye’: If your Labrador’s watching you intently, but not staring directly at you, from the corner of his eyes so that the whites of his eyes are showing, this is known as ‘whale eye’. This signal is very often seen before an aggressive outburst so if you see this, you should stop whatever it is you’re doing and move away from your Lab. It’s often seen when they’re resource guarding a bone or a favorite toy.
The Mouth Says a Lot
The way your Labrador controls its mouth, its lips and teeth can say a lot about their feelings.
- Relaxed and happy: The mouth is closed or just slightly opened if hot and panting to cool down.
- Feeling aggressive: Your Labrador will bear it’s teeth by pulling its top lip upwards and its bottom lip down, wrinkling its muzzle and sometimes growling aggressively. This is your Lab showing teeth intending to bite! You should stop what you’re doing and back away to defuse the situation.
- Submissive (‘Submissive grin’): When some dogs (not all) feel extremely submissive, they pull their top lip up and display their front teeth. This signal is almost always seen with an overall submissive body posture, such as a lowered head and squinting narrowed eyes. Often people will think their dog is being aggressive due to showing his teeth. But a dog with a ‘submissive grin’ is trying to communicate exactly the opposite and is trying to appease you, not be aggressive.
- Lip licking: A dog might lick its lips when it’s feeling stressed, unsure of itself or threatened. It’s a submissive behavior and doesn’t usually precede aggression, but as your Lab could be fearful, you should take care as it could escalate into aggression if the stressful situation continues.
Yawning: Is a calming signal used to relieve personal tension when slightly stressed or confused. But like in humans, dogs will also yawn when tired and it does seem contagious (test it by yawning in front of your Labrador in an exaggerated way for a little fun :-) )
Listen To What The Ears are Saying
Unlike us, a Labrador can move their ears quite freely and generally speaking, the more forward the ears are, the more confident he is feeling. The further back and flatter they are, the more fearful he is.
- Relaxed and comfortable: Your Lab’s ears will be held kind of naturally but if something alerts him, they’ll be held higher up and directed toward whatever has caught his attention.
- Feeling aggressive: The ears are also usually raised but unlike when relaxed or alert, other aggressive posturing will also be seen, so be sure to check for other signals too.
- Feeling friendly: Your Labradors ears will be pulled back slightly and his facial expressions relaxed.
- Frightened or submissive: Your Labs ears will be completely flattened or stuck to the sides of the head.
The Tail Tells Many a Tale
We’ve all heard that a wagging tail means a happy dog right? WRONG! It’s not always the case as a dog will also wag their tail when feeling aggressive!
As adults we’re usually more in tune with how a dog’s feeling due to our experience, but to a naïve child with little or no experience of time with dogs, telling them that a wagging tail means a happy dog could lead to dangerous situations! Read on to learn how your Labradors tail reacts to different emotions:
When your Labrador is:
- Relaxed and friendly: Then his tail will be held in a natural position, level with the body or just a little lower.
- Happy: The tail will be in a natural position but wagging slowly from side to side. When really, VERY happy, the tail will wag much more forcefully, perhaps even wagging his entire rear end and hips!
- Feeling aggressive: And here’s what most people don’t realise: Your Labrador may wag his tail if he’s feeling aggressive, threatening or dominant! A tail held very high, stiff and moving purposefully back and forth shows confidence and dominance. Your Lab’s showing that he won’t back down!
- Fearful and afraid: Your Labrador will hold its tail very low, perhaps even tucked between the legs. This signals fear for the current situation, your Lab is scared. Confusingly though, your Lab may still wag his tail which is a submissive sign to go along with the fear, almost like a ‘nervous laugh’ in a human.
That about sums up the distinctive body parts, now it’s time to put it all together….
Adding it All Together to Read Canine Body Language
We’ve discussed the most important body parts, but we need to look at all the elements combined, along with your Labradors overall posture and the situation it’s in to truly know how your Labrador is feeling and what his intentions are.
Generally speaking, your Labrador postures in an attempt to accomplish one of three things:
- To look natural, relaxed.
- Trying to look smaller, less threatening and submissive.
- Trying to look larger, confident and threatening.
Combine this with the overall facial expression and the way he holds his tail and you can be quite accurate about your Labs emotions and feelings.
What follows is a list of the most common emotions your Labrador may feel and the signals that communicate these emotions:
When Feeling Happy
A happy Labrador will look relaxed and ‘natural’, not displaying much in the way of signals, nor trying to make himself look large or small.
He’ll stand balanced evenly on all 4 legs, with tail and ears held naturally, relaxed facial muscles and his mouth closed or slightly open if panting to cool down. His tail will usually be at a neutral height and be wagging gently from side to side.
When Curious But Not Confident
When your Labrador is curious about something but not overflowing with confidence, he will approach it slowly and carefully.
His weight will be back on his rear legs, ready to flee like lightning if the need should arise.
He may stretch out a single paw or extend his neck to touch or sniff the item whilst keeping most of his body as far from the object as possible for a quick escape.
Often they will tilt their head from side to side as they look and listen, trying to figure out the thing of interest.
Feeling Fearful, Scared or Frightened
This is one of the easiest sights in canine body language to interpret. Crouching low to the ground and making themselves look as small as possible is the unmistakable sign of a scared or frightened Labrador!
Their head will be held low and their eyes will be narrow, looking away from whatever it is that frightens them, watching only with their peripheral vision and maybe occasionally taking a glance out of the corner of their eye.
The ears will be far back and flattened to the side of his head.
His tail will be very low and possibly even tucked tight between his legs.
He will settle his weight over his hind legs or position himself ‘side on’ to the source of his fear so that he can dart away quickly if it all gets too much.
In especially severe cases where the fear is overwhelming and an escape isn’t easy, a lot of dogs may shake and tremble with the fear.
On High Alert!
An alert dog looks very concentrated and intense.
He will be standing upright with weight centered on all fours. His head and neck will be up tall, with his eyes looking normal but directed at whatever happens to have his attention, whilst his ears will be up (as much as they can be for a Labrador) and turning around to try to capture any sounds.
His tail will either be in its natural position or held slightly high and it will be rigidly held still.
His mouth will normally be closed but he may occasionally whine or bark.
The overall look of your Labrador will be one of extreme concentration and it’s here you can often sense the intelligence of the animal.
When Feeling Submissive
When your Labrador is being submissive, it means he’s trying to show to another animal or person that he’s not going to challenge for authority, that he’ll be obedient and passive, that there’s no need to be aggressive towards him.
A submissive dog will look a lot like a frightened or scared dog described above: Making himself small, crouching low to the ground, averting his gaze to not stare and with a low and possibly tucked tail.
However, differing from the look of a scared dog, when showing submissiveness a Labradors tail will often wag whilst being held low and although cowering to look small, the dog’s head will not be lowered. The neck will be, but the muzzle will point up toward the person or other dog, whilst possibly licking with his tongue.
Other signs of submissiveness are your Lab may lie down and roll over on their back, displaying what’s known as the ‘inguinal area’ which is essentially their genitalia. Some will stay completely still whilst on their backs, others will paw a little at the person or dog, halfheartedly trying to push them away.
In some cases, particularly puppies, they may urinate in what’s known as ‘submissive urination.’
Feeling Dominant – Essentially Confident and Assertive
When people describe their dog as dominant, they’re referring to a feeling of confidence and assertiveness, not necessarily a dog that wants to command those around him.
A dominant feeling, confident Labrador will try to make himself look large.
He’ll stand tall and erect, looking tense and with his weight balanced on all four feet or shifted slightly forward on his front legs ‘ready for action’, the opposite of a nervous or scared dog.
His neck and head will be raised tall and proud, his tail high and rigid, sometimes wagging or shaking in small movements just at the end. Sometimes their hackles may be raised, this being the hair on his shoulders and along the center of his back, all to make him appear as large as possible.
His ears will be erect and forward, eyes wide open and perhaps staring, making eye contact with the person or other dog.
His mouth will be closed or just slightly open but there will be no teeth showing as there would be in aggression.
All this is to show that he is confident, standing tall and proud and the exact opposite of how he would look if fearful or submissive.
Feeling Angry and Aggressive
If your Labrador is feeling angry and aggressive, he’ll do his best to make himself look large and intimidating. He will look very similar to when he’s feeling confident and assertive, (see dominant above) but on top of this posture, he will add aggressive and threatening body signals.
Spotting the signs of aggression is one of the easier parts of canine body language to interpret as it can look very scary…which is, of course, the whole point!
Typically, his weight will be centered over his front legs so he can lunge or charge forward with lightning speed.
If your Labrador’s feeling fearfully aggressive, he will adopt all the postures described in ‘Fearful, scared or frightened’ above, but he will bear his teeth, snarl and growl.
Most fearful Labradors don’t get aggressive and would rather flee the source of their fear than fight it. But if they’re cornered or otherwise blocked in, they may feel there’s no other option than to bite. At this time, he will still look fearful but the aggressive signals of bearing teeth and growling will be seen as discussed.
If you ever see a fearful dog growling and showing teeth, it is absolutely crucial that you slowly and carefully turn away sideways and step away from the animal as there’s a very real risk that the next move is to bite!
If your dog feels angry, aggressive and confident at the same time, he will simply be on the attack!
You’ll essentially see very assertive and dominant canine body language with aggressive signals overlaid on top.
He will make himself look large and intimidating, hold his head high, put his ears up and forwards, raise his tail high and hold it rigidly, put the hairs on his spine up on end, have his weight forward ready to lunge and will be staring directly at the person or other dog. These are the signs of an assertive and confident dog.
On top of these dominant signals, he’ll also be exposing his teeth by vertically raising his top lip and wrinkling his muzzle. Usually he will become very vocal, growling, snarling and barking loudly in an unmistakably threatening manner.
Labradors are known for their beautiful temperaments, so it’s unlikely you’ll have to see this often, but if your Lab shows any of these signs of aggression, especially ‘offensively aggressive’ then you simply MUST seek advice from a professional canine behavior specialist as soon as you possibly can. Do not really on information found on the internet to cure it, it’s a sensitive and complicated situation where mistakes mustn’t be made for the safety of all involved. Please see a professional.
Aggression can and must be cured, before somebody gets hurt and your Labrador possibly taken away.
When your dog’s excited, his body is tense and ready for action but he’ll also adopt a playful looking posture.
His ears will be up (as much as they can be), his eyes looking open and concentrated, looking at the source of the excitement and there’s every chance his mouth will be open but his teeth will be covered.
his tail will be held high, usually wagging side to side and sometimes with such vigor that his entire rear end is wriggling with it!
Excited dogs often bark in short, excited little outbursts and this shouldn’t be confused at all with any aggression.
Ready for Play!
A playful Labrador is energetic and bouncy, leaping and spinning and barking and pawing. They like to run around you, or forward and back, possibly knocking lightly against you before sprinting away hoping for you to chase after them or start play.
Their ears will be up and forward and his eyes will be wide open with a sparkle of joy in them.
Possibly the most welcome to see posture in the whole of canine body language is the play bow, a signal given that literally means ‘come and play!’ All dogs do this and the signal says: Whatever I do next is all meant in fun and nothing I do from now on should be taken in any way seriously!
During a play bow, your Labrador will spring into a position where his front legs are forward and very close to the ground, his rear legs will be straight and his behind high in the air. He will usually bark a high-pitched, yapping, excited bark, just screaming for some attention.
Canine body language is both loud and in your face, and subtle and almost hidden.
Sometimes the signals are so strong that they cannot be mistaken. Such as when your Labrador is very fearful or offensively aggressive.
But sometimes they can be subtle, like when a child hugs your Labrador and he licks a little and yawns. (When yawning and licking, your Labrador is stressed and unsure.)
By learning canine body language, you will see that your Labrador is constantly telling you exactly how they feel. Their heart is on their sleeve so to speak.
Your Labs intentions and how he’s feeling are always there to see, you just have to know what to look for and be able to interpret it.
By practicing just a little each day for a few short weeks, it will soon come naturally to you. I highly suggest you do so because when reading your Labradors body signals is second nature, you will always notice little signs of stress, anger or confusion when they occur and can then adjust your behavior (and other people’s) to suit, and before aggression is triggered or any distress caused to your dog.
A relationship is a two-way thing, needing trust, love and understanding on both sides. Your Labrador constantly watches and learns all he can about you, adjusting his behavior at times to suit what he sees. It’s only fair that you hit back with the same.
Related external articles I read during research you might like to check out:
From ASPCA.org: canine body language
From ModernDogMagazine.com: How to read your dogs body language:
From Pets.webmd.com: Dog body language
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