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home : columns : columns December 14, 2017

11/7/2017 1:17:00 PM
Understanding your dog's body language
Is that a smile? A relaxed, happy dog often looks like hes smiling. photo by Jodi Schneider McNamee
+ click to enlarge
Is that a smile? A relaxed, happy dog often looks like hes smiling. photo by Jodi Schneider McNamee

By Jodi Schneider McNamee

What is your dog trying to tell you?

Because dogs don't speak human language, the only way to really comprehend and communicate with them is for pet parents to understand and appreciate what they are telling us through their body language and vocalizations.

Canines communicate using a complex language of body signals that indicate what they are thinking and feeling.

Even though a dog's face and head come in many shapes and sizes, your furry friend's basic facial expressions can tell you a great deal about how he's feeling. Eyes that appear larger than normal usually indicate that a dog is feeling threatened in some way. He may be stressed by something or he may be frightened. Dogs who are in pain or not feeling well often look as though they're squinting their eyes.

How many people have sworn their dogs smile when they are happy?

When a dog feels content, he has relaxed body language. This means facial muscles are relaxed, making his mouth open and the corners of his mouth turn upwards, according to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Any pet parent usually knows when their dog is feeling playful. His body movements are jerky and bouncy. He might bounce around in exaggerated twists, turns and give you the "play bow."

He'll get into the position with his forelegs on the ground and his hind legs extended so that his rear sticks up.

But when a dog is tired of playing, his body language changes. He may look away, lay down, or show other avoidance behaviors.

A dog's ears also have something to convey within his body language. When a dog is relaxed, his ears may be slightly back or out to the sides. As a dog becomes more aroused, the ears will move forward, pointing toward the subject of interest.

And when observing a dog's tail, there are two things to consider: the position of the base of the tail, and how the tail is moving.

A relaxed dog holds his tail in a neutral position, extending out from the spine. As the dog becomes more excited or aroused, his tail usually rises above spine level. The tail movement may be a loose wag from side to side or a sweeping circular motion. He may also move his tail side to side in short, rapid movements as he becomes more excited.

A fearful dog will tuck his tail between his rear legs. The tail may also be held rigid against the belly, or wag stiffly.

When your dog is fearful or scared, he also does his best to look small. Usually, his body looks hunched, and his ears flattened back on his skull. He might cower close to the ground. An extremely fearful dog may freeze completely or frantically try to escape, and he may urinate or defecate when approached.

There is also the dog that is fearful-aggressive. He won't look any different than when he's fearful, except that he might show his teeth and growl. Some fearful dogs never escalate to aggression, but others will if they feel there's no escape. A fearful dog isn't likely to bite a person or other animal unless all avenues for escape are blocked and he feels trapped.

A dog displaying truly aggressive body language will "look large," standing with his head raised above his shoulders. His body will be tense, with weight centered over all four feet or leaning slightly forward onto the front legs, and his tail is held high and rigid.

His display depends on how close he is to the threat and whether his intention is to stand his ground, charge forward or retreat. Typically, he will draw his lips back to display his teeth and usually will growl, snarl, or bark, although his bark might be high-pitched. Often, his hackles are up.

Much like your own "goose bumps," the hair can raise along a dog's back when he is upset or excited. This is also known "raised hackles" and can happen across the shoulders, down the spine, and above the tail. Hackles don't always mean aggression is going to happen, but they are an indicator that the dog is very excited or upset about something.

If your dog is anxious or feeling stressed, you may see a change in his activity level. He may escalate and become hyperactive or appear more on edge and ready to react defensively. Other signs to be aware of include excessive drooling or shedding, trembling or sweaty paws.

For instance, have you ever noticed how your furry friend may pant at the veterinarian's office? Panting is a sign of stress, particularly rapid accompanied by a tight mouth with stress wrinkles around it. And ever notice how your dog will gain comfort by holding onto you?

An anxious dog may also vocalize - he may bark, whimper, whine, or growl. Dogs may also lick their lips when nervous.

The messages dogs communicate with their body language can be subtle, but with careful attention, most people can learn to recognize and interpret the most important meanings. It's important to know when your dog's happy, when he's playful, when he's worried or scared, when he's feeling uncertain or insecure about something or someone, and when he's feeling upset and potentially angry. As long as you can recognize these messages, you can interact with him confidently and safely, and you can protect him when he needs protection.

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