Doggies.com is proud to present this continuing series, translating SpotSpeak into everyday English for you. Although dogs can communicate with barks and growls, they have a much larger repertoire when you learn to read their body language. Everything from the way they hold their bodies to the way they lick their lips, move their tails, hold their ears, and dilate their pupils can give you clues to their mood.
Each installment will consider one mood or emotion and the body language that is indicative of it. Learning how to read a dog’s body language will help you not only to understand your dog, but also to interpret the warning signals an aggressive dog might give so you know when you might be in danger.
Spend some time carefully observing your canine friends to see how they act in different situations. When you play with your dog, he will show you how a happy dog looks. When you take your four legged friend to the dog park, you will see how he looks when he plays with other dogs and establishes himself in the pack order. At the vet’s office, you will likely see his worried look. Careful observation of how the dog behaves under circumstances that are fairly easy to predict will help you to understand what your dog is trying to tell you when you are in new situations where you are unsure what his reaction will be.
The first mood we will consider is confidence. Like humans, dogs feel confident when they are secure in their surroundings and comfortable with the people or other animals in the immediate area. Take your dog to a spot in the house or yard where you know he is comfortable and take a look at him. You will see the markings of a confident dog: chest out, tail up and slowly wagging, and ears either pricked up or relaxed. The pupils of the eyes, if you can see them, will be small, and the dog may make direct eye contact with you.
There’s nothing quite like the look of a confident dog. He stands up big and tall, without a care in the world. Much as a confident person might puff out his chest, the confident dog will puff out his chest, elongating his body to its full length. The dog wants to make sure other dogs know he is secure in his position as the alpha dog in the pack. To do this, he makes himself look bigger than he really is by standing up tall, legs straight and head held high.
The mouth of a confident dog is relaxed, with the lips covering the teeth. The dog will not be panting as a behavior, but may be panting to cool himself if it is warm out. You will not see any teeth, as the lips fall gently over them due to gravity. The dog is not generally using any of his mouth muscles to pull the lips back or up when relaxed.
Eye contact is used by dogs to indicate dominance. A confident dog will have no problem maintaining direct eye contact with you, as he already knows he is in charge. A submissive dog, on the other hand, will break eye contact, admitting that you are the alpha dog in the relationship. The pupils will be small and relaxed, and no white will be showing around the eyes of a confident dog. A fearful dog will have dilated pupils, much as a human does. This serves the protective purpose of allowing the dog to take in more information as he prepares for “fight or flight”. A submissive dog will turn his head away while keeping his eyes on the dominant dog, leading to his showing the whites of his eyes.
A dog can also show his confidence through his tail posture. The dog will hold his tail erect, wagging it in a slow sweep. A recent study showed that dogs wagged their tails towards the right side of their bodies when they were happy and towards the left side when they felt challenged. In the study, Italian neuroscientists and veterinarians presented crated dogs with a glimpse of their owners, an unknown human, a friendly cat, and a dominant dog. The dogs in the study wagged their tails towards the right side of their rumps when they saw either of the humans or the friendly cat. When presented with the dominant dog, however, each of the dogs wagged more to the left side.
This observation tracks with what is seen in other animals, where the left side of the brain specializes in positive feelings while the right side of the brain is associated with negative feelings or depression. You may remember that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, resulting in the leftward tail wag under negative stimuli.
Dogs can tell us a lot with the shape of their ears. A confident dog will hold his ears in a relaxed posture or may have them standing at attention: facing forward and slightly pricked up. You may be familiar with this expectant pricking up of the ears, as a dog will often do this when you hold up a treat. This is in contrast to an aggressive dog which pins his ears back or a submissive dog who lays his ears down as a symbol of subservience.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll consider the fearful dog, as well as some calming behaviors you can use to help him become more confident. Until then, spend some time observing your dog in different situations so you can see what makes him feel the most confident, with an erect posture, relaxed mouth, erect slow-wagging tail, pricked-up ears, and direct eye contact through relaxed eyes. Like humans, dogs love to feel confident, so you will want to maximize his time in the environments that make him feel this way.
Dog Behavior and You: Part 2 here
Dog Behavior and You: Part 3 here
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