Understanding Body Language in the Dog
It is becoming increasingly obvious that people misunderstand their dogs or misinterpret signals given by dogs in certain situations.
The very first basic I would give is the tail. If you remember nothing else from this article at least remember the tail! It tells you an awful lot about a dog. Fundamentally we want to see it wagging as this does tell us that all is well with the dogs emotional state! If the tail is between the dogs legs then this is an indication of submission and nervousness. If the dog’s tail is upright and not wagging this is the dog displaying its assertiveness. He is trying to make himself appear bigger to other dogs so that he can be the dominant dog. Some dogs do give out mixed signals, but in my experience providing the tail is wagging then usually the rest will just sort itself out as dogs need to have a pecking order amongst themselves.
Happy dogs greet other dogs by an sniffing the rear end, it is a ritual that some people seem to stop their dogs doing. But it is them sussing the other one out. This can then lead to them having a hoolie with one another! Dogs that are playing will often present themselves in a bow. the head end will be bent downwards with the bottom being up in the air. This is a clear invite to play. Other dogs will be prancy and gazelle like in their way of inviting another dog to play with them.
Ears – Attentive happy dogs should have alert pricked ears. Now clearly some breeds including my beloved Labradors have ears that lay down the side of the face. They can still be pricked up a little bit (at the base of the ear on the head!) if you see ears that are pulled backwards this is a clear signal of the dog being uneasy with the situation. It could mean it is scared, submissive and nervous.
Hackles – these are the hairs that will stand up on end between the shoulder blades of the dog. In some dogs their hackles will go all along the body of the dog. The raised hairs will indicate that the dog is being assertive primarily. This can lead to dominance and some growling, occassionally followed by aggression. Dogs will greet each other sometimes with the hackles up it is not a definite signal that a fight is about to ensue! Dogs have to work out what the hierachy is. They do this in a very quick evaluation of the other dog. Some dogs like to be more dominant than others and there are dogs that are more than happy to be subservient.
If you see a dog that has its hackles up, showing its teeth and ears back, with grumbling growls I would most definitely take this as a serious warning. I would quite simply walk away. There would be no point in seeing if your dog can work out his pack status with a dog displaying those signs. Usually you see this sort of behaviour when a dog is on the lead. It is because a dog will feel threatened when it is on a lead as it, quite simply, cannot escape. So he is being defensive before he actually needs to be.
Teeth – baring of teeth is a warning to another dog. The dog baring its teeth is saying I am in charge over you. It doesnt automatically mean a dog is going to fight. It is the dog communicating to the other dog. If all the other symptoms are there – hackles up, growling and potentially lungeing at the dog then this can be a sign that all is not well – particularly if both dogs are growling. As they are appearing to squaring up to each other.
Usually all growling is over and done with relatively quickly. A snap of the teeth is usually the extension of the warning growls. It takes experience to understand that even a quick snap doesnt mean you have an aggresive dog. It does hoever mean you have got a dog that wants to be dominant over another.
Subservient/Submissive behaviour usually a dog will make itself as small as possible by crouching to the groung and offering its belly to the other dog. This should tell the other dog that it is being subservient and there is no need to go further with the pecking order!
A dog that is bounding up to other people or dogs is clearly not subservient but it does not necessarily make it dominant or a fighter. It can mean it is over friendly and maybe needs to be made to keep its own space with its owner.
This list is clearly not comprehensive, so I may have missed obvious signals out. I will be adding to this article, potentially!