A spatulate tongue in dogs is something that is worthy of learning more about considering that its recognition can make you a better owner. Yes, because when dogs are stressed, they exhibit a variety of changes to their bodies and a well-trained eye can readily recognize them with a little bit of practice. As it happens with other body parts, it's important to emphasize to not just focus exclusively on the shape of the dog's tongue, but to also look at other factors such as context in which the behavior takes place, what the dog is doing at the moment and what's going on in the rest of the dog's body.
Discovering a Dog's Tongue
You dog's tongue is a muscular organ responsible for carrying out a variety of functions. Overall, it is very mobile. When your dog drinks, the tongue is lowered and dipped inside the bowl of water. Interestingly, contrary to what was previously thought, when a dog drinks, the tongue is curled backward, to form the shape of a ladle which carries a column of water that is then thrown into the mouth.
On top of being used for drinking, a dog's tongue helps in temperature regulation. Since dogs don't sweat to the extent humans do, they rely on a different mechanism known as thermoregulation to keep their temperatures under control.
What happens is that, as a dog heats up due to exercising, being stressed or in a hot environment, his tongue will increase in size due to greater blood flow. With the tongue hanging out and the dog breathing fast (panting) the moisture on the tongue helps cool the blood flow through evaporative heat loss.
Dog tongues work also well as grooming tools, helping dogs keep their coats in good shape by licking, and as handy handkerchiefs, cleaning up any nasal secretions before they have a chance to drip more. And when Rover gets hungry watching you eat a tasty sandwich, that tongue comes handy to remove any extra saliva.
Oh, and talking about food, as it happens in humans, the tongue is home to many taste buds. Mother Nature though got a bit stingy in this department when it comes to dogs. While humans boast 9,000 taste buds, dogs have only a mere 1,700. To compensate though, dogs have a super powerful sniffer so the odors of food tend to attract them more.
Use of Tongues in Dog Communication
On top of carrying important functions such as allowing dogs to drink, lowering their bodily temperature and keeping dog coats tidy, dog tongues are also used as a form of communication. Quick "tongue flicks" are often seen when dogs are concerned about something. Dogs may flick their tongues when they are stressed or as a way to calm down another person or animal. Some dogs will also flick their tongues when they are highly concentrated on a task or uncertain about what to do.
Tongue flicks are not always easy to identify as they happen rather quickly. They may swiftly cover the nose of the edge of the mouth. Many pictures of dogs show tongue flicks because dogs may not be comfortable with being photographed with that big camera "eye" right into their space. Many dogs yawn too when they are having pictures taken!
If you enjoy making videos of your dog/dogs, play them back and watch them in slow motion. Most likely, you will find several frames with quick tongue flicks taking place. Try to find out what may have triggered them to gain a deeper insight into what your dog may be thinking. Is your dog dealing with low-level anxiety? Is he sending an appeasement gesture towards you or another dog? What was happening at the moment? How does the rest of your dog's body language look like? Did your dog show whale eyes? Whale eyes in dogs mean that the white of the eyes are showing.
What is a Spatulate Tongue in Dogs?
To better understand what a spatulate tongue is, let's first identify exactly what a spatula is. The word derives from the Latin word for a "flat piece of wood." Wikipedia describes a spatula as being a broad, flat, flexible tool used to mix, spread and lift material. People who love to cook and use specialized kitchen utensils, will likely know what tool we are talking about.
A spatulate tongue in dogs is therefore used to depict a tongue that is held in a tense manner. Because a dog's tongue is a muscle, it is not surprising for it to stiffen up when a dog feels tense about exposure to a trigger or situation.
When a dog is stressed, you may therefore notice dilated pupils, the lips drawn back with tension ridges in the skin right behind them, the dog looking away, and possibly panting, with a tongue way out of the mouth featuring a spatulate shape.
In more detail, a spatulate tongue appears very wide at the bottom (due to muscular tension) and the curling at the end is typical, explains Brenda Aloff, in the book "Canine Body Language, A Photographic Guide."
A dog who is panting from merely being hot or after exercising, instead tends to pant with the tongue held down as a result of gravity, since in this case, the tongue is relaxed and limp rather than tense. The tongue is therefore loosely lolling from the mouth.
Exceptions to the Rule
Do spatulate tongues in dogs always mean stress, like the negative stress? As it happens in many things "dog" no rules can be ever set in stone because there are so many factors to consider. For example, when we think stress, we often think about the negative type, when stress can take place in other forms as it may happen with eustress (a positive form of stress).
Also, a spatulate tongue can be seen in dogs who are very hot and perhaps uncomfortable. I have seen many pugs and Boston terriers with spatulate tongues when hot or after exercise and this may be because of conformation or because these dogs may struggle to breathe when they exercise or feel hot.
When I see this tongue in brachycephalic dog breeds, I therefore get worried and wonder whether the owners are pushing their dogs too hard being that we're in Arizona and it gets hot often.