Understanding canine body language can offer insight into a dog’s emotional state. Some physical signals are obvious, some subtle, and some, misunderstood.
Nicole Wilde is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer and the author of six canine-related books, including Help for Your Fearful Dog and So You Want to be a Dog Trainer. She presents instructional seminars worldwide, works with shelter and rescue groups, and is considered an expert on wolfdogs (aka wolf hybrids). Her books and seminar DVDs are available through Phantom Publishing at www.phantompub.com.
- A wagging tail does not always indicate a friendly dog. That a wagging tail means a dog is happy or friendly has long been one of the biggest misconceptions among the dog-owning public. Misreading a wagging tail as friendly can not only be a mistake, but in some cases, dangerous. There are two things to consider regarding the tail: the actual wag, and the angle at which the tail is held. Picture a typical, happy Golden Retriever. The tail is held roughly parallel to the ground and wags in a loose, wide, swooping arc. That’s a happy tail! But if a dog’s tail is held higher than usual and moves stiffly in a tight arc, it indicates confidence and often dominance (this is often seen when two dogs meet nose-to-nose for the first time). It is also sometimes a precursor to aggression. If the tail is held low and wags in a fast, tight arc, the dog is probably anxious, frightened, or showing submission. If the tail is tucked, the dog is very frightened, unless that is the dog’s normal tail position, like some sighthounds. The trick is to be familiar with the usual position of your dog’s tail, and to pay attention to the various types of wags.
- Ears can be subtle indicators. If a dog’s ears are flattened against the skull, the dog is afraid; but there’s more to it than that. A dog with prick ears (German Shepherds, for example) may indicate uncertainty about something by turning one ear slightly to the side, or laying it slightly back. When a dog is acting confidently, dominantly, or aggressively, the ears are often forward. These subtleties are easier to spot with prick-eared dogs, but even with flop-eared dogs (for example, Cocker Spaniels), the change in position can be seen if you are watching for it.
- Muscular tension and freezing. When a dog is calm, the body musculature is relaxed, the movements fluid. When a dog becomes worried about something, he may momentarily “freeze.” The body and head will suddenly become motionless. If the dog’s mouth was hanging open in a happy pant, it will close momentarily along with the freeze. The dog is assessing something in the environment, deciding whether there is something to be concerned about. The dog may then flee, fight, or, having decided there is nothing to worry about, go about his business. Very often the first sign that a dog is going to act aggressively toward another dog is a freeze, accompanied by a lowered head, staring, and muscular tension in the body and/or face.
- Raised hackles do not always indicate aggression. The hackles are the fur along a dog’s back. When these hairs stand on end, it is called piloerection. Often when the thick ruff of fur around the dog’s neck and shoulder area stands on end, it is assumed that the dog is going to attack. It is true that when a dog is acting aggressively, or wants to show another dog that he is dominant, the hackles may be raised. This makes sense, as raised hackles make a dog look bigger, and therefore more of a threat. But hackles may also be raised, sometimes all the way from the neck to the tail, when a dog is simply excited or aroused. Even the “omega” or bottom-ranking dog in a pack, may show piloerection when playing with dogs of higher rank.
- Subtle stress signals. It is immensely useful to become familiar with your dog’s subtle stress signals. These may include yawning, lip licking, scratching at himself, sniffing the ground, or turning his head and/or body away from the thing that is stressing him. Yawning and lip licking are very common stress signals, but ones that most of us are not trained to look for. Once you become aware of your dog’s individual stress indicators, you will have a better idea of when something is stressing or frightening him. Keep in mind that no single body part or individual signal is completely indicative of a dog’s state of mind. Each must be considered as part of a whole to get a true picture of the dog’s internal state.