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Articles - Dog Language


by Caroline Kjall at DogBasics

There are so many misunderstandings between dog and human, still today, despite all the knowledges we have about our dogs history, their needs and their language. I can only assume that this is because the knowledge just hasn't spread out far enough. So here is a lesson in dog language.

Signs of confidence: erect stance (standing tall), tail up, tail wagging in slow sweeps, ears pricked up or relaxed, pronounced chest, direct undeterred look, relaxed, smaller pupils. A dog that is feeling confident will show it by making himself larger, looking more powerful.

Signs of fear or concern: lowered stance, tail down or tucked under, tail wagging quickly, looking away or turning head away to look so that whites of eyes show, dilated pupils. Fearful or submissive dogs try to appear smaller and more puppy like. Adult dogs will chastise puppies, but they do not attack them. The approach to a more dominant individual is likely to be from the side, crouching low with the tail held low and wagging enthusiastically. He may also try to lick the face of the dominant dog or the hands of a person and if this is not sufficiently appeasing, he might then roll on to his back to expose his groin. In this position, some dogs may pass a small volume of urine. Barking can be a sign of fear, an attempt to keep a distance between themselves and the scary object, especially if they are cornered, fenced in or on a leash.

Signs of arousal or nervousness: Dogs that are aroused/slightly nervous will often have their hair stand on end, usually the "hackles," the areas over the shoulders and just before the tail. This doesn't necessarily mean aggression, just that they are on high alert. Some dogs get "raised hackles" more easily than others.

Dominant body postures: Standing over another dog (the dominant dogs head is over the other dogs neck, also called the T-shape or squaring up. Sometimes it is a paw that is placed over the other dogs neck), standing tall and quite stiff, calmly accepting other dogs licking at their lips, staring. Some confident, dominant dogs will roll on their backs, exposing their bellies, in an attempt to reassure a more shy or submissive dog, or to get that other dog to play. They will be relaxed when they do that, and usually still look the other dog in the eye. Sometimes mounting another dog is a sign of dominance, but not always. This gesture can also be used by a lower-ranking dog to try to demonstrate his allegiance with a higher-ranking animal.

Submissive body postures: lowered head and body, allowing other dogs to stand over them, licking other dogs' lips and mouth corners, looking away from the other dog, rolling on back and craning head away from other dog, while covering their genitalia by tucking their tail in.

Note that among dogs, the hierarchies are usually maintained and demonstrated very casually and almost always by more submissive members of the pack. Very high-ranking animals very seldom demonstrate their rank, unless they lack confidence. Most demonstrations and almost all fights that occur over rank are done by the middle-ranking or unconfident members.

Quote taken from 'How to Speak Dog' by Stanley Coren: "Forcing the dog onto its back is the equivalent of an abusive parent beating a child to force it to say, 'I love you.' Although he or she may have forced the words out of the child's mouth, they cannot force the statement to be true.... Forcing a dog into a submissive position is the dog world equivalent of this scenario. Even worse, this technique may actually anger the dog enough to provoke it to attack. "
and
"Forcing a dog into an alpha roll, or shaking the dog, both constitute physical aggression. Physical aggression is not communication. If there is good communication, then such confrontations need not occur."

Tail. Most people would recognise that loose, free tail wagging that is a typical sign of pleasure and general friendliness. Exaggerated tail wagging, which extends to the entire rump, may be seen in submissive and nervous dogs - as well as those dogs with very short tails (Spaniels for example).

The tail is also an indicator for other emotions. A tail waved slowly and stiffly, in line with the back, expresses anger. Clamped low over the dog's hindquarters, it is a sign that the dog is afraid. Anxious or nervous dogs may stiffly wag their drooping tails as a sign of appeasement.

The normal way for dogs to carry their tails have been modified through breeding and docking. Some breeds, such as the Whippet and the Italian Greyhound naturally carry their tail in the clamped down position, but in general, a tail held at higher than 45 degrees to the spine expresses interest and alertness.

Docking of tails
It is incredible that we are still mutilating dogs this way. It is like we would cut peoples tongues off… The tongue is one of the most important tools we have to communicate with and so is the dogs tail to a dog. I would urge you to be very selective when you get your next puppy, so that you don't take a puppy with a docked tail, ears or dew claws. As most modern Vets will tell you, there is no health reason for docking (unless the dog has actually injured his tail), just a cosmetic one. Please go to Emma - the Vet's site and join the petition against docking.

Ears. The ears are pricked when he is alert or listening intently, but are held back or flattened onto the head when expressing submission or fear. To read his mood correctly, you must watch for other body signals at the same time. Some dogs have stand up ears and some have floppy ears and you need to learn how to read both.

Eyes. The eyes may be narrowed or half-closed in pleasure or submission, but are wide open when aggressive. In the wild, the pack leader can maintain control simply by staring at a subordinate dog. The two animals will continue to stare at each other until one challenges the other or until one lowers his head and turns away. If the staring continues after the submissive dog has looked away, he will feel confused and may bite out of fear. If eye contact is not broken, the dominant dog will reinforce his threat by snarling, growling or even attack. You should not try to outstare your dog if he has aggressive or nervous tendencies as this could provoke an attack. Nevertheless, regular, gentle eye contact with his owner is reassuring for your dog and will reinforce your relationship.

Play and Play Invitations
Since dog-dog play is very similar to serious things like fighting, hunting and reproducing, dogs have good ritualistic ways of demonstrating that their intentions are peaceful and fun-loving. Dog play is often initiated by a play invitation like a play bow or pawing the air (especially with puppies), and it seems to say, "None of the biting, stalking, or humping I'm about to do is serious, this is just fun, OK?"

Rough play. Even when dogs play very roughly, they are usually fairly relaxed; their lips usually cover their teeth (not drawn back in a snarl). Dogs often bark in play; this will usually be higher-pitched than that same dog's fear-bark or warning-bark.

If playing dogs get too aroused, you might want to intervene. If your dog is getting overwhelmed or is overwhelming someone else, invite them to take a short break. No punishment is necessary: it's just a breather, not a penalty.

Sometimes dogs will mount each other in play. They are often excited, but not in a sexual way, and it seems to be a way to bond. It is occasionally a show of dominance, but not always. Some dogs appear to mount high-ranking dogs in an attempt to find their place in a group that is much more complicated than a straight-line hierarchy.

Recommended reading:
Dominance - fact or fiction? by Barry Eaton
Dog Language by Roger Abrantes
How to speak Dog by Stanley Coren
The other end of the leash by Patricia B. McConnell Ph.D.

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