Dogs read other dogs’ body language all the time; it’s programmed into their DNA. As soon as a dog spots another, they’re sussing each other out to find out more about them, just like we do as humans. But we follow a completely different body language rule book – what could appear to be a happy and contented look to us could mean something completely different to your four-legged friend.
Here’s our guest blogger and expert dog behaviourist Lucy Proctor’s simple guide to help you crack the code:
A relaxed dog is quite easy to spot. They will not be tense in any way, with fluid motion throughout the body, a low tail (but not tucked under), head held up with a slightly open mouth and their tongue will be peeping out, with ears up in a natural position (unless you have a floppy-eared breed such as a spaniel, then it will just be relaxed and not cocked or held). Their eyes will be soft and their fur will remain flat.
Ears will prick forwards slightly, eyes widen a little but not show the whites. Their body may lean forwards following the line of sight towards whatever caught their attention, and sometimes a front leg will lift too. Their mouth will close and their tail will start off being horizontally level with the line of their back, but that will turn into a slightly enthusiastic wag if all goes well.
A dog wanting to play will often do what’s called the ‘play bow’; the front of the body will go down to ground level, whilst their rear end will remain up in the air. The tip of the tail being at the highest point in this position will start waving and as things get more enthusiastic, grow into a wag. The ears will prick up, pupils dilate, and their mouth will open.
If your dog is unsure of a situation or of another dog, then their body language will be screaming, “Leave me alone!” They will hunch or crouch down and shrink themselves to try to pacify the other dog so as to appear non-threatening. Their tail will tuck between their legs but not curl right under and may slightly wave. They will avert eye contact, head down, ears flat back, lick the air and/or pant and their body will be stiff in movement.
If a dog is in extreme fear or faced with a very dominant dog they wouldn’t want to cross, they will roll on their back in complete submission in the hope that they can avoid physical confrontation. Their tail will be tucked right under, they might urinate a little, eyes half closed or squinting, with their throat and tummy exposed and avoiding eye contact with head slightly turned away. If this happens a lot while you’re on walks, it may be an idea to speak with a dog behaviourist.
If your dog is not afraid of sticking up for themself, then a confrontation situation will look very different. They may suffer from fear aggression and attack if forced, but wouldn’t initiate anything. Their hackles (the hairs along their backbone) will be raised, they will stoop down a bit (like a stalking cat) with their tail tucked under, ears back, nose wrinkled to expose teeth, lips curled and the corners of their mouth will gape. This means they could strike at any time.
On the other hand, if your dog is confident, they may show signs of dominant aggression. A dominant dog carries themself very proudly indeed, and struts. Their tail is up and stiff, they will puff themself up to make them appear larger than they are and will be quite stiff in movement too – with ears forward, teeth bared, they’ll lean forwards in the direction of the perceived threat, their wrinkle nose and forehead with raised hackles and their tail will puff out too.
If you know you have a dog that’s particularly reactive or aggressive around other dogs, I can reassure you it is perfectly possible to overcome this. If your dog doesn’t like other dogs, use your common sense and don’t put them (or yourself) in a situation that will stress you both out. Don’t go to the local park where you know there will be several loose dogs – street walk your dog where no dogs can come up to you and your dog can’t go up to them. Keep it all calm and within your control. Also, get some physical help with the aid of a dog listener or behaviourist so you can work through your difficulties together under the guidance of a professional. Get recommendations from someone who has turned their dog around – as I’ve said, it is absolutely possible to do, and you can look forward to a happy and relaxed relationship with your dog with a little hard work and perseverance.
Keep your ears pricked for more insights from the mind of Lucy Proctor, our expert dog behaviourist!
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