If you are into canine body language than you are one of those persons on this planet that is hyper aware of how a dog uses their tongue. A student of the tongue more or less.
It is one of the first overt body language signals a new dog trainer learns to observe, in social situations, with physical or social pressure, in context with human interactions, and amongst dog friends.
A lick can be a lick, plain and simple. Food on the muzzle, a feeling of satisfaction after a good meal, or a nice rest, or just because. But trainers learn this through years of experience and generally, when well-seasoned, can tell if it is ‘just because’ or if a dog is slightly stressed, or signaling a bigger problem. It is generally all within context. A single tongue swipe, a tongue flick, multiple tongue swipes from the dogs lip to lip, a hanging tongue, or a hanging tongue curled up like a spoon, licking of objects, hyper licking another dogs muzzle, licking available human skin areas (easy in the summer when we are all in shorts), it is all valuable communication, important information.
Because I live in a home with lots of tongues, I thought this basic guide would be helpful.
A FLAT EASY TONGUE –
When hanging out, if the temperature is fair for the dog and their coat, and engaging in light activity, the flat easy tongue is a good sign of ‘relaxed and all is well’. Light activity will almost always bring the tongue out and over the bottom teeth, but not by much, the mouth will be lightly open, but not pulled back, no veining up over the muzzle, and soft eyes.
AT EASE TONGUE
When a dog is not tasking or working, but is still engaging with life and feeling relaxed and at ease, you will see the mouth slightly open, but not pulled back, no veining up over the muzzle, relaxed face, and the tongue showing, but on the inside of the teeth. This is a dog that is under no stress.
This is actually a tricky one believe it or not, and it is all dependent on context. A dog that is just relaxing and hanging out, with their mouth closed, soft muzzle and facial expressions, is most likely a relaxed dog, at ease.
A dog that is in motion, closed mouth, smelling things, and has a soft gait, soft swaying body, easy tail, and is responsive to your voice is generally a relaxed dog in motion.
A dog that is fully aligned from nose, to eyes, to head, to ears, to spine, to tail, and has their mouth press closed with tension, veining up over the muzzle, and tension in the walk forward, is not fine. This is a dog under great stress, in the wrong environment, and something is about to not go well.
Two dogs, two presentations of body language, both relaxed and at ease. Soft faces, soft eyes, no veining up over the muzzle, easy body postures, no hard pressed mouths, easy flat tongue on Story.
This photo of Ocean is a great example of misunderstanding. Because she is a herding dog, it is easy to take a quick glance and say, she is herding. True, kind of. Great eye stalk, aligned body, determined, low easy working tail, not overly aroused, herding. HOWEVER, it is always in context, and on this day she was for whatever reason super pissed off at $eeker and she was going over to give him her Gran Dame talking too.
The subtle tight muzzle with tension is the tip off really, it isn’t just a closed mouth, it is a pressed shut hard mouth. These are the nuances that take years to learn through observation of thousands of dogs.
The tongue hangs out forward or to the side, mouth open, depending on the level of exercise the commissure (corner of the mouth) can be slightly pulled back or pulled back hard with multiple ridges. Again, everything is in context.
If the level of exercise is appropriate for the dog, there should be no veining up over the muzzle, eyes should remain soft or easy, and the dog should be able to recover to an easy flat tongue with little effort (depending on temperature, coat type, and level of exercise).
SPOON or DISH TONGUE
When a dog is super stressed or has been exercising hard, the tongue will have saliva ridges on it from the roof of the mouth, and the tip of the tongue will be curled up like a spoon or dish.
This is letting you know that your dog is trying to create more ‘surface’ on the tongue to gather more oxygen, and more air flow to cool down.
Reaching this state is not desirable, but with athletic dogs it happens, especially if the work is vigorous. Cool down time should be taken seriously.
Sometimes a dog will ‘spoon out’ with light exercise and stay in that ‘anaerobic’ state for an extended time. This would be an indicator, within context, of a veterinary visit for blood work to make sure all is well. *** Please note, some of us can exercise hard and recover in two minutes, while others exercise hard, and do well, but get a beat face and take an hour to recover. We all have different genetics, you know you, now you should learn about your dog.
With dogs that go over their threshold for comfort or safety, if there was no previous strenuous exercise, and panting starts to escalate, the tongue ‘spoons out’, and there are saliva ridges on the tongue, an immediate change in environment is necessary.
…AND THEN YOU HAVE THE TONGUE HOLDER
There are dogs that hold their tongues. It is mostly in the herding breeds but I have also seen this in some of our smaller toy breeds.
A dog will sleep with their tongue out and in front with mouth closed, sometimes just the tip, and sometimes a full one to two inches.
When a dog is concentrating on a task, they will hold their tongue out in front or to the side, mouth semi closed.
I can tell you that Rhumb comes from a long line of tongue holders, so for her it is genetic. I only know this because I know her line. That tongue of hers is out and about quite often.
Sometimes people confuse a TONGUE HOLD to a dog that is stressed. Context, always know the context.
This is just the beginning, this is just a basic glimpse into the world of canine body language. To become fluent in this language you have to treat it like any other foreign language, expose yourself daily, read, watch, observe, and ask questions.
Life is so much better when we understand each other.
16 Comments Add yours
Great post! I’ve seen zillions of things about body language but never about tongues. Love the photo of Ocean. Anyone that has a border collie bitch has seen that mouth (“You *(#%ing little scum ball, I’m coming over there to teach you a lesson!” — teeth gritted) LOL!
I wish I had time to post all of the tongue photos I have, tongues and what they tell us are a good thing to learn.
Yes Ocean didn’t get angry often but when she did, it wasn’t hard to misinterpret. Nancy
Thank you for this article. Could you give more information regarding your use of “veining up over the muzzle”. I haven’t heard that term before. Do you mean, tension? My dog has a beard and a mustache so it’s very difficult to see subtle changes if you are not specifically looking for them, I’m always trying to work on and improve my observational skills and I appreciate easy to follow articles like this one. I am sharing this article on my facebook page, if you would like to reply to my query there. Or I’ll check back here in a couple of days.
veining up is when the vessels over the muzzle protrude and are visible.
There is a great deal of tension, not just facial, but through the whole body.
THink of clenching your fists and clamping your mouth shut, with pressure, and then taking shallow fast breaths.
With our dogs that have bushy facial hair it is difficult to see, especially if it covers the lip and commissure area.
You have to look for other subtle signs. Respiration, eyes, ear, posture, flat paw or toe tipping, tail carriage … lots to look at …
I hope this helps, Nancy
When I first got my rescue Ridgeback I mistook stressed for happy, as his mouth would draw back into what looked like a smile and he would pant heavily. I’ve been reading his tongue for 5.5 years now. Best way to know what is happening when combined with body language.
Such a good article, never seen anything on this before. My Rottie is an avid licker and ‘hyper licking’ her big sister when saying hello after being apart is a big must for her (she’s a very nervous dog and also loves the Bullmastiff drool!) – never really thought about it in terms of reading her emotional state before. Great hints and tips to look out for – Thanks 🙂
You are welcome Amelia ~ Nancy
As an owner of a Boxer, I have become quickly familiar with “tongue language”. He is a tongue holder, and because of his jaw it sticks straight out front. Makes for a cute photo, especially when he is asleep. I totally agree with this article and your pictures are helpful even though it may look totally different for my dog. I find myself repeating Context is key!!
oh please post a photo. Tongue holding boxer has to be adorable!!! ❤
Thanks for this. I have 2 border collies. What does it tell you when they lick bare skin? Just a quick wet swipe on the elbow or knee. Any way to discourage it gently? It seems to be a gesture of affection or for attention but drives me crazy…thanks
could be … just a check in kind of thing. If things aren’t broken I wouldn’t try to fix it.
When something becomes repetitive, or out of context, and is not easily interrupted, that is when you have something going on. Nancy
Great article Nancy, very interesting indeed.
Nancy, my Pingu, a pet greyhound who is almost completely blind with PRA and almost 12 years old, tends to pant all the time when we go out. He never used to do this unless he was hot. I think he does spoon his tongue (but will check later) and I don’t know what saliva lines mean: do you have a picture to illustrate this?
My theory is that when we leave the house his anxiety ramps up enough to make him “panty” but I hope it’s not so bad that he is hating being out.
I previously had a greyhound who was so spooky he would shake all the time when out, so eventually made the decision to leave him home which worked for him. Pingu jumps off the sofa enthusiastically when it’s walkies time so I hope it’s not cruel to be taking him out. Thanks.
This is a great article. Thanks! More please 😊. I’d love to read more about licking skin and muzzles (I have a young BC who does this quite a bit) and about lip licking. Thanks! Judy
Nice article, good start on this. Nobody else has said much about dog tongues! But in these photographs the key is not the tongue as much as the corners of the lips. When these corners are more back, the dog is more relaxed. Even more back becomes an expression of fear. The human smile evolved from the fear grin, for example. The closed mouth, non-herding, but purposefully walking to issue a command has corners of the lips somewhat forward, meaning confidence, low level of aggression maybe. A truly aggressive dog will have the corners of the mouth pulled forward more and wrinkled nose, so the mouth opening form a sort of squarish o-shape.
Great article..my 5 yr old, pittie mix has recently started leaving the very tip of her tongue slightly out..sometimes when shes sleeping or even just sitting ….it worrries me because she never did it before…