“But His Tail Was Wagging !” Understanding Dog Body Language – Part 1

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We’ve all heard someone who has just been snapped at by a dog say, “but his tail was wagging!” Many people think a wagging or non-wagging tail is the extent of dog communication. Dogs, quite to the contrary, use rich, subtle, and complex body language to communicate wants, intentions, and emotion.

If you want to know what a dog is thinking and feeling, you need to observe the dog’s whole body. Dogs speak with their head, ears, eyes, eyebrows, lips, teeth, tongue, legs, paws, fur, tail, body orientation, body height, degree of curve in their back, degree of motion or stillness, and different combinations of all of the above.

A good example of the complexity of dog body language is the play bow, used to initiate play, versus the prey bow, used just before a dog pounces on prey. Prey bows may be used in play but only after play has already been established. A prey bow outside of established play is a threat. In both the play and prey bow, the elbows are down, rear up, and ears up. The subtle difference is the tail which is down in the play bow and up in the prey bow.

Dogs learn to read and display body language through extensive social interaction as puppies and adolescents. Dogs who miss out on that social interaction may misread another dog’s intentions and/or give misleading signals about their own intentions. Docking a dog’s ears and tail can hamper their ability to “speak dog”. Likewise, breeds with permanently curled up tails (Shar-Pei) or raised hackles (Rhodesian Ridgeback), may be misunderstood by other dogs.

In this two-part article we’ll explore some of the most common and important signals used in dog body language. We’ll only cover the tip of the iceberg, but will hopefully whet your appetite to learn more. If you want a thorough introduction to dog body language, Canine Body Language – A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff, is a great place to start.

Most of us know what a relaxed dog and an attacking dog look like. What many don’t and should know are the signals that tell you when a dog is moving out of a relaxed state and into a stressed, fearful, or threatening state. Let’s start with stress and fear signals. A dog giving these signals feels threatened and is saying,  “I’m not comfortable with what is going on here; I don’t want to interact and I need to get out of this situation”.  Stress and fear signals include:

  •  A relaxed open mouth that suddenly closes and stays closed
  •  Out of context, excessive behaviors like yawning, panting, snout licking, ground sniffing, or ground pawing
  •  Eyes widened showing the whites of the eyes, pupils dilated
  •  Brows and/or nose ridge furrowed
  •  Ears held down and back
  •  Looking away from the threat
  •  Raised paw
  •  Tail tucked down between the back legs
  •  Rounded, lowered, backwards leaning body posture

Depending on the threat level, a dog may show a few or many of these signals. If the signals are ignored and the perceived threat increases, and the dog cannot escape, he may escalate to growling, barking, snapping, or biting. If your dog is displaying stress or fear signals, get him out of the threatening situation. If it’s someone else’s dog, back off and let the owner know her dog is feeling threatened.

In the next article we’ll discuss how dogs communicate threatening versus non-threatening intents.

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