Do You Speak Dog?
Recently there was a post of a video from a local shelter showing a black Labrador "smiling" - holding his lips up almost like a snarl as he wagged his tail, came when called and accepted petting. He was being passed over for adoption because the "smile" looked a lot like a snarl. And looking at only the "smile" one could not tell if he would be friendly or aggressive. It was the rest of the body that showed this was a friendly body language sign from this dog. Confusing - yes - he likely learned to do this for attention. This is why it is so important to become very observant of the whole dog and understand what this dog is saying. So many people miss these cues and misinterpret what a dog is trying to say. I will cover some of the main points of reading your dog's body language, especially to avoid problems.
Every animal has it's own body language. Barks, growls and whines certainly tell us a lot, but the way a dog hold's it head, ears, and tail tells us much more than just vocalizing can. One must be very observant to the whole body of the dog and what that dog does as it is showing these behaviors. Many people focus on just the face or eyes of the dog. This is where they are weak in learning the dog's language. Observing the whole body and interpreting the whole picture is key to communicating well with your dog.
Humans communicate by body language, but the concentration of that message is focused on the face. Not so between dogs. Dogs look at the whole body from the ears to the tail to read each other's message. They read our body language in the same way. If your dog was slow to sit on command, just try standing up straight like you did in training class. Your dog will likely sit right away. Bending over had them confused - you bend over when you put my leash on, to scold me, to put my food bowl down. Your dog is running through this list trying to figure out what you are trying to say. When you stand up straight and give a clear hand signal with a clear one word command then bingo! Your body language is clear and the dog follows the command. So pay attention to the head, ears, body and tail as you read what your dog is saying.
The basic signs of fear and aggression are common amongst dogs but it can be difficult to read depending on the breed, age and size of the dog. This is when trouble can happen. A shaggy coat, cropped tail and ears or small body size makes it difficult to read the signs. Before you can really interpret body language you have to see the pet's body!!!!
If you have a shaggy dog - get a close hair cut for the dog no matter the breed. They will not get cold - if you are worried get a doggie coat. With short hair you can see if the dog is staring or looking away. You can see if the hair is rising on the back. When they tense up their body you can see it with shorter hair. For dogs with docked tails, they have to express with their ear carriage. If both tail and ears are docked - good luck. These dogs are difficult to read but with practice you can see how the rest of their body looks, the eyes look and other signs. With older pets, it may be difficult to lower or raise the tail due to arthritis. If your old dog seems to suddenly burst out with aggression, or hiding - there may be pain going on.
Some dogs have learned that showing their fear or distress did not help them out. By immediately biting, this dog learned that aggression worked best. If your dog suddenly snaps or attempts to bite for no apparent reason, get your pet to a certified veterinary behaviorist. Often pain is triggering these dogs but they learned that acting in pain did not help them get help. Aggressing removed what may cause more pain. Few dogs are jerks - just biting for the sake of biting. It has amazed me how many dogs became much easier to handle at veterinary exams when we gave pain relief medication. If you have an explosive dog do not delay contacting a certified veterinary behaviorist for help.
Not all dogs "speak" the same body language. Take the time to watch your dog whenever you are out. When on a walk, playing with other dogs and people, or feeding. See how they ask you for pets and how they act when they are happy. Note how they act when they are first timid or anxious. Now you can understand what your dog is thinking. This is the language of your dog, the most important dialect of dog language for you to learn.
- written by Dr. Sally J. Foote