Know Your Dog’s Body Language, Know Your Dog!
It is so important to understand your dog’s body language; I can’t tell you how many people I have heard say that they have had dogs their entire life, and in the same breath say something about how the dog is wagging his tail so he must be happy. How can you have an animal for so much of your life, and not even understand the basics of dog body language? If you know and truly understand your dog’s body language, you will be able to help ensure the safety and well being of your dog, as well as the people around him, in all different situations.
Let’s start with the previous example; tail wagging. When your dog wags his tail it is because of adrenaline. Just like humans while adrenaline is coursing through your dog he can be feeling a lot of different emotions. If we have a surge in our adrenaline it oculd be because we just won the big race, and we are feeling happy and accomplished, but we can also have this same surge if we are driving and the car in front of us slams on the breaks and we need to pull to the side to avoid an accident. Even though it is the same adrenaline, the emotions we are feeling are very different, and this is the same for your dog while he wags his tail. As Grisha Stewart points out on the very first page of her book The Official Ahimsa Training Manual:
“A wagging tail means that a dog is excited, that there is adrenaline coursing through the dog’s veins. A wagging tail goes with both happy and unhappy emotions.”
Usually a spiraling tail is a happy dog, try to take note of your dog’s tail the next time you come from being gone all day; if it looks like a helicopter propeller that’s your dog’s happy tail! A tail that is high and stiff and wagging fast, sometimes called flagging, this usually means your dog is aroused, or anxious. Low and slow wagging can mean a weary dog, and of course a tucked non wagging tail is a scared dog.
Next I find that three of the most obvious behaviors your dog will do are often explained away by owners as being caused by something else. Yawning, lip licking and shaking off are all three examples of appeasement behaviors, that can sometimes mean other things. If your dog just woke up and she yawns, she probably isn’t stressed, but if a noisy scooter roars by and your dog yawns, this is likely a stress sign. Same goes for licking her lips; if your dog is licking her lips while you prepare her dinner, probably just fine, but if she licks her lips when your little cousins give her hugs, then she is probably stressed about this. Shaking off as if your dog were covered in water; completely normal when she is all wet, but not if is after a friend pets your dog. You will often see your dog do the stress shake off after being examined by the vet. I usually call it “getting the yuckies off.” And it does exactly that; allows your dog to “shake off” some of the stress they are feeling.
If a situation is very different for your dog, a new vet, dog park or home, then it is a good idea to recognize your dog’s posture. Is she standing confidently with her tail up? Or she holding her body lower to the ground? She might even be all out cowering, hold her head and over height very close to the ground. If she is doing this, she is likely afraid and it best to try to remove her from this situation.
If your dog’s posture is fine, but you are still concerned she could be nervous, then next you should look at your dog’s face, eyes and brow. Is she panting even though it is not hot? Are her eye darting or avoiding you? Is her brow furrowed and wrinkled? All these signs may also mean your dog is feeling anxious.
Finally you should check for a piloerection which is when the hair along your dog’s spine, the hackles, stands up on end. There are usually two levels of this, if the hair is only raised between the shoulder blades this usually means the dog is excited, and if the hair is raised all the way along the spine to the tail, the dog is likely nervous and becoming too aroused, if you see this in a dog park it is a good time to step in, or redirect your dog.
Dr. Sophia Yin has some great free downloads on her website including a poster displaying most body language signs in your dog. I find it to be very useful tool. You can download it here: http://info.drsophiayin.com/free-poster-on-body-language-in-dogs/
If you want to learn more about your dog’s body language, another great rsource is Sarah Kalnajs’ “The Language of Dogs” DVD. http://www.dogwise.com/itemdetails.cfm?ID=DTB875P
It is important to know the signs that a situation might be too much for your dog, after feeling stress and anxiety is not fun for anyone, especially your dog. Take note of how she reacts to different people and things, and something seems to cause stress for your dog, either do your best to avoid those situations or consult a local certified dog trainer to help your dog over come these anxieties. Dogs communicate mostly through body language, so learn to be fluent in their language so that you can understand and provide your dog with what she needs. Your dog will thank you for it with big circular tail wags!