How Dogs Communicate with their Body Language

How Dogs Communicate with their Body Language

The ability to read dog behavior and pick up on dogs’ body language can be life-saving for people and for dogs. Recognizing signs of fear in a dog, expressed in a myriad of behaviors including red-flag signs like a tense, rigid body, deep growling and bared teeth, could precipitate swift action to avoid a problem.

“Accurately predicting a dog’s behavior can help circumvent a dog aggression incident,” says Purdue University animal behaviorist Candace C. Croney, PhD. “Whether you run a dog kennel or work as a handler or trainer, being responsive when you see warning signs and acting quickly promotes human safety, canine welfare and also protects the human-animal bond.”

Dr. Croney, professor of animal behavior and well-being and director of the Purdue University Center for Animal Welfare Science, and her research team developed the Field Instantaneous Dog Observation (FIDO) tool1 to help kennel owners, inspectors and laypeople recognize signs of stress in dogs and evaluate their state of physical health and well-being.

“Accurate assessments of dogs’ behavior and welfare are especially important in kennels where dogs are housed for extended periods of time,” she says. “Not only is this important for an individual dog’s well-being, it has been shown that stress can affect the physical, behavioral and emotional health of breeding dogs and their puppies.”

The FIDO scoring system, which is based on research sponsored by the World Pet Association and the Pet Food Institute, categorizes dog behavior much like the color coding of traffic signs: 

  • Red behaviors indicate fear and distress that can be problematic for a dog’s welfare and for human safety, and some red behaviors signify a potentially reactive dog that may be a danger to human handlers and kennel workers. All red behaviors indicate a dog is uncomfortable with the interaction.
  • Yellow behaviors reflect ambivalence, or a dog having mixed reactions to a situation, meaning humans should slow down and be cautious.
  • Green behaviors describe a dog that is undisturbed from its current activities, or a dog that is friendly or wanting attention in the moment, putting interactions with humans at that point in go mode.

“Regardless whether a dog’s initial response is red, yellow or green, handlers should check the dog’s posture and signals throughout their interactions to ensure safety and well-being of both the dog and the handler,” Dr. Croney says. “Some of the biggest concerns with dog safety relate to fearfulness dogs may experience when confronted by strangers or novelty.”

The research team conducted a pilot test to see if FIDO was an objective tool that enabled consistent ratings of dog behavior among novice observers and expert behaviorists. The inter-rater reliability of the FIDO tool showed that with proper training, novices could score dog behavior consistently with experts. The study also showed the tool’s potential usefulness in assessing individual dogs and identifying those having difficulty coping with their kennel environments.

“It is so important to pick up on what dogs communicate through their body language,” Dr. Croney says. “Identifying dogs in need of intervention is critical from a safety standpoint and also from an animal welfare viewpoint. All dogs deserve physical, emotional and behavioral well-being.”

1Bauer AE, Jordan M, Colon M, Shreyer T, Croney CC. Evaluating FIDO:

Developing and Pilot Testing the Field Instantaneous Dog Observation Tool. Pet Behaviour Science. 2017;4:1-15.

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