Reading your dog's body language
“But he was wagging his tail before he bit me!”
Many dog bites could be prevented if humans were better at reading dog body language. Contrary to popular belief, a wagging tail does not always mean a dog is happy. The position and speed of the tail wag, in addition to the dog’s posture, ears, eyes and mouth can tell you volumes about whether the dog is happy, fearful or highly aroused.
Reading human body language
Most animals are masters at reading body language. Humans also have this ability, but we tend not to utilize this skill because we rely so much on verbal communication. Behaviorists speculate that 10 percent of our communication with dogs is through tone of voice and words; the remaining 90 percent is non-verbal. You pick up your dog’s leash; he runs to the door for his walk. You look at the dog bowl; your dog runs to the pantry where the food is stored. You point to the floor and your dog lies down. You pick up your car keys and your dog heads towards the garage in anticipation of a car ride.
Reading dog body language
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 apprehensive. If the dog’s lips are curled back, his nose is wrinkled and he is showing teeth, back off!
A dog with soft eyes is usually feeling comfortable. A dog with “whale eye” (where you can see the whites of his eyes) is fearful. If the eyes start to narrow and the dog is staring intently, he is becoming aroused. 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 get into the habit of observing your dog’s body language, you will be better equipped to address any potential problems before they escalate. As author Christopher Paolini noted, “Learn to see what you are looking at.”