In the last two dog body language articles, I talked about how your dog’s eyes and how your dog’s mouth communicates his feelings towards other dogs and people. But, when you are trying to read a dog’s communication, you have to look at his whole body to really get the full picture of what is in his mind.
I find canine communication to be so fascinating and never get tired of watching dogs interact.
When my assistant and I have our puppy playtime in our puppy class, I love to watch the new puppies explore each other through play and of course language. I also listen to what my clients are saying about their puppy and often I want to help them understand a little more about what is going on.
In order to play nicely or just get along with each other, dogs need to possess the skill of being both confident and relaxed. I'm not talking about lying around relaxing. I'm talking about being relaxed enough to patiently read and give off proper body language.
For example, if a dog’s ears are angled forward and his mouth is closed and lips tightened, you might think, this dog is confident and alert. However, if in addition to that, his body is low, tail is tucked under his body and he is leaning back slightly, those facial expressions mean something else all together.
I want to spend a little time talking about the rest of your dog’s body and how he uses it to communicate to other dogs and to you!
When it comes to canine communication, there is a lot there to work with. Fortunately, I have enjoyed reading the language of thousands of dogs running and playing in our dog day care for 18 years and combined with the thousands of dogs I’ve trained in group classes, private lessons and even agility, I feel like I have a lot to work with to continue educating myself and all dogs have been my teachers.
But, even with all of that experience, I continue to educate myself about the intracacies of dog body language. It's just facsinating. Although I don't expect my clients to be as fascinated as I am, I do know that the more you know about your dog's language, the better you can train him AND keep him safe. The more you know about dog body language, the more protected everyone is, including your dog! In fact, if your dog is looking uncomfortable with the approach of another dog or person, PLEASE do your dog a favor and disallow a meeting. Most of the the time, meeting another dog under those circumstances is not going to go well.
Dogs communicate through many different parts of their bodies. But any of those body parts can relay what appears to be friendliness and yet have another intention. The key is the "relax" factor. Tenseness in any part of the dog's body can overrule what appears to be friendly.
If you are out with your dog and meet up with someone who wants your dog to meet with his, it’s important to know, to the best of your ability, if that dog is indeed friendly. You cannot just take someone’s word for that without looking at his dog and making your own assessment. First, what is your gut telling you about the situation? It’s important to always listen to your gut?
Then, lets evaluate that other dog. Is the he straining at the end of his leash or worse, barking and acting over stimulated? Are the dog’s eyes smiling or are they very round or squinted with what is called a "hard eye"? A hard eye blinks very little and continues to stare at the other dog (or person) approaching. Does he have a relaxed mouth, slight gape, perhaps light panting or is his mouth closed tightly?
Are his ears perked way forward or are they held relaxed without a furrowed brow?
All of this is information that tells you in the moment, what the other dog is thinking and what his intent is. The more you do this, the more you observe, the better you will get at it.
Myth of the wagging tail:
Another big confusion that people have about dog body language is a wagging tail. It’s so important to note that wagging does NOT always mean friendly. There are a few different “tail wags”. What you want to see if you or your dog is potentially meeting another dog, is a “relaxed and low” tail wag. A friendly wag will be very slow and low to the dogs body without being tucked. If the dog's tail is wagging rapidly or is up and stiff and is being held very high parallel to his body, think again about this meeting. This dog "may" be friendly but more than likely is stimulated by your dog's presence. Nothing good comes from over-stimulation or even worse, frustration. Leashes do create frustration in dogs for sure. So my suggestion is pass this meeting up for now. It's okay to say "no thank you".
Always put careful thought into whether you should let your puppy or dog approach or even whether you should approach an oncoming dog. Not all dogs are friendly and many dogs are just not good when they are on a leash! One negative incident on a young puppy or adolescent dog can easily shape the rest of his interactions from that point forward. I would hate to have your puppy or dog get hurt when we can so easily prevent it.
Worrisome state of mind
Without question, the most worrisome state of mind of a dog is that of fear. A fearful dog, if backed into a corner (so to speak) is not in control of his actions. Dogs have "fight or flight" reactions. If a fearful dog feels like he or she cannot get away, then he will "fight" to survive. In fact this is what causes a lot of leash reacitivity in dogs. When a dog is on leash and he is not a confident dog or just confident about being attached to a leash, his reactions are often fearful and fight-like.
Because dog body language is so important to recognize, here is a PDF of body language of different reactions in dogs. I think it's simply brilliant. This handout is one of many illustrations by Lili Chin. I actually now sell a beautiful book of illustrations by Lili Chin to help new puppy parents understand their dog better.
Just to review:
There are many ways dogs communicate, through their eyes, through the shape of their mouths, through actual vocalizations and through all types of body language including but not limited to their tails. Evaluating what a dog is thinking in the moment is important as you make your decisions to approach or not.
I hope you learned at least one thing from these short newsletters on dog body language. If you would like copies of the last 2 artilces visit my training topics page for all three and find more helpful training tips too!