Written by: John Woods
Most dog owners wish their beloved four-legged friends could speak, so we could know how they’re feeling or simply what goes through their minds when they’re rolling in that fox poo for the millionth time. Barks, howls, and the odd yap are about as vocal as our pooches get. Therefore, if we really want to understand them, we need look at their body language.
A dog’s body can tell us all we need to know.
Basic Body Language
First, look at the dog generally: is their body rigid or soft? Are they walking confidently and fluidly, or are they tentative and awkward?
A happy, content dog will be soft, fluid, and confident. They really do appear without a care in the world. A dog with a stiff, rigid body isn’t happy about something. If they are walking tentatively and withdrawing themselves, they are fearful of something.
Look around. Are there other dogs, other humans, or something in the environment that they are reacting to? Whatever it is, Fido isn’t coping and needs to be removed from the situation. A dog’s response to stress is to fight, flight or freeze. Just like humans, dogs have different ways of managing their emotions. This one is bordering on the freeze response.
Posture and Hackles
Most owners would notice the fight response over any other. The body becomes rigid, and the hair on their backs and necks (known as hackles) is raised. This is due to the stress hormone adrenaline, which causes contraction of the skin muscles. The hair on end gives the illusion that the animal is bigger and therefore poses more of a threat.
This dog may snarl or growl, and their tail may be up and rigid.
What owners need to remember here is that the fight response is simply that – the dog is responding to something in the environment that they perceive as a threat. If it is an unwarranted fear, then work needs to be done to desensitize and counter-condition to respond differently.
The flight response is quite simple: your dog has perceived a threat and has run away. Despite its simplicity, it is regularly mismanaged by dog owners.
Imagine, on greeting another dog, your dog isn’t keen and decides to remove himself from the situation and runs off. Misreading this situation, the other dog thinks your dog wants to play and chases after him. Eventually, your dog sees that flight didn’t work, so maybe a fight will.
As a responsible dog owner, you need to know whether an interaction is playful or not. Both dog’s bodies need to be soft and fluid. There may be play bows, featuring the typical lowered front end, with the back end in the air. The dog may throw its head around and tap dance with its front paws in an attempt to engage with the other dog.
If you don’t see this playful body language, you need think about pulling your dog in from his chase interaction.
Being mindful of dog body language helps to avoid potential disasters with both other dogs and humans – it is one of the most important skills any dog owner can learn.
John Woods is the founder of All Things Dogs, a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, a graduate in animal welfare and behavior, and a recognized author by the Dog Writers Association of America.