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.