But he was wagging his tail before he bit me!” So many dog bites could be prevented if we humans understood a little more about dog body language. The position of a dog’s tail and the speed of the tail wag tell us volumes about whether the dog is happy, fearful or highly aroused. Knowing what to look for when approaching a dog you don’t know can prevent you from being injured.
Most animals are masters at reading body language. Humans also have this skill, but we tend not to utilize it because we rely so much on verbal communication. Behaviorists have determined that 90 percent of our communication with dogs is non-verbal, and only ten percent of our communication with dogs is through tone of voice and words.
How many of you are familiar with the story of Clever Hans, a horse who was famous in the early 1900’s? Han’s owner, Wilhelm von Osten, claimed Hans knew math and toured Europe showing off Han’s math abilities. Wilhelm would ask the horse a mathematical equation, and the horse would correctly tap out the answer with his hoof. The scientific community didn’t believe that Hans could really do math, so they made it their mission to prove Wilhelm wrong. The scientists determined if Hans could not SEE Wilhelm, he was not able to correctly answer the math question. It turned out that Wilhelm was subtly lowering his eyebrows when Hans got the answer ‘right’. What is interesting about this story is that Wilhelm did not even realize he was doing this – and audiences never saw it either. The movement was that subtle.
Dogs have this same incredible ability. A friend of mine taught her dog, Diva, to solve math equations in the same manner that von Osten did. Diva learned that when her owner said “Diva, what’s one plus one” in a very high-pitched, excited tone of voice, that she should start barking. When my friend raised her head a tiny bit, Diva stopped barking! (This is a great trick to entertain the grandkids with.)
Most of us are probably using body language to communicate with our dogs and don’t even realize it. How many of get our dogs to retrieve a specific toy by simply looking in the direction of the toy? How many of us ask our dogs to ‘down’ by pointing at the floor? And certainly one of the most effective ways to get a dog that has jumped up on you to get off is by turning your entire body away and breaking eye contact.
A dog’s tail can tell you a lot about his emotional state. A friendly dog’s entire back end will wag widely from side to side. An aroused dog carries his tail a bit higher and the tail tends to wag slower and more stiffly. A dog that is about to attack tends to carry his tail up high and the tail wag is short and stiff. Frightened or submissive dogs tuck their tails.
A dog whose ears are up is usually relaxed. If the ears start to move forward, the dog is getting a bit more aroused. If the ears are back or down, the dog is feeling fearful or being submissive.
A dog that appears to be smiling (mouth open, tongue out) is in a happy, calm mood. If the dog’s mouth is closed, the dog may be slightly uncomfortable and checking out the situation. If the dog’s nose is wrinkled, the lips are curled back and he is showing teeth – watch out!
A dog with soft eyes is usually feeling comfortable. A dog with ‘whale eye’ (where you can see the whites of the dog’s eyes) is fearful. If the eyes start to narrow and the dog is staring intently, he is becoming aroused. And most of us recognize the staring eyes of a dog who is about to attack.
The more aggressive and dominant the dog is, the larger and taller he tries to make himself appear. A submissive, frightened dog will try to make himself appear small. An aggressive dog’s entire body will lean forward, where a frightened dog’s body tends to lean back.
If you can learn to observe and interpret how your dog is feeling by paying attention to what his body is telling you, you will be better equipped to help your dog with any behavior issues that might arise. And your dog will thank you for it!
Click on these links for some visuals:
Zoom room guide to dog body language
Understanding dog body language part I
Understanding dog body language part II