Fido, May I? Playing Red Light, Green Light with a New Doggy Friend

I always ask twice if I can pet someone's dog, including client dogs that enter my facility. First, I ask the owner's permission. If the...


I always ask twice if I can pet someone’s dog, including client dogs that enter my facility. First, I ask the owner’s permission. If the owner allows me to pet her dog, I then ask the dog’s permission. Reading canine body language is a learned skill, and people that haven’t yet learned that language sometimes miss subtle signs that indicate the dog would prefer not to be petted or approached. Today, we’ll look at some green light signals (please pet me!) and tomorrow, we’ll examine some red light signals (keep your distance!) that can clue you in as to whether the dog is giving you permission to approach.


  • Soft eyes: “soft eyes” can be a bit tricky to explain. When you look at your own dog and she is relaxed, how do her eyes look? Generally, the pupil dilation is appropriate to the level of light in the environment and you see none, or very little, of the whites of the dog’s eyes.
  • Ears: alert, but normal. The ears should be neither set far back (looking as if they’re glued against the dog’s head, a sign of fear) or pushed forward and stiff (a sign of potential aggression). These signals are easy to read in prick eared dogs like Mokie (shown left) and are comparatively more difficult to see in flop-eared breeds like many hounds and sporting dogs.
  • Jelly bones: if a dog looks as though her bones are made of silly putty (“wiggle butt” – lots of curvy body posture with the head and rear arcing to meet each other), it’s generally a good indicator that this dog might like a butt scratch!
  • Happy tails: A popular myth is that if a dog’s tail is wagging, she’s happy. There are some tail wags that indicate a dog is definite NOT happy and we’ll talk about those in a bit. A happy tail wag generally involves “jelly bones,” – the tail is carried loosely, and the movement often looks like wind blowing through tall grasses, a gentle, swishy swaying from side to side. My other FAVORITE tail wag is what I call propeller tail, where the tail makes loose circular motions – Cuba is the master of propeller tail! Propeller tail pretty much always indicates a happy dog.
  • A greeting fit for royalty: another good sign is what is known as a “play bow,” this is an invitation to play in dog social circles. A play bow is when a dog stretches her front legs forward while placing her rear high in the air. Because we want to look at the whole dog and not a particular signal or body part, look for other green light signals accompanying the bow to make sure the dog isn’t just stretching.
  • Belly up! Cuba LOVES a good belly scratch, so it’s not uncommon, when he wants to greet a new person, for him to roll over on his back and stretch both his back and front legs out (making himself approximately 9 feet long in the process!) with his tongue lolling happily outside his mouth. Again, you’ll need to look at the whole dog to see if this is a belly scratch invite – dogs with histories of abuse may offer this behavior for other reasons (fear, appeasement, deference), in which case this may actually be a red light signal!
  • Happy mouth – if a dog is panting, with her mouth wide open like she’s “smiling”, and has a facial expression similar to a Lab waiting for the next tennis ball toss (this often includes lolling tongue), it’s a good sign!

Stay tuned for some “red light” signals tomorrow!

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