Although dogs are quite vocal animals, their main form of communication either with humans or their own species is through non-verbal signals or what we more popularly call body language.
Non-verbal messages can be both overt and very subtle; think of the enumerable non-verbal messages you send and receive during the course of an interaction with another human being. In fact human behaviour experts suggest that over 80% of our communication with each other is ‘understood’, by us interpreting the non-verbal behaviours during a conversation.
Our dogs are no different, in fact they are far more capable of interpreting non-verbal communications, in both relation to humans and their own kind. Dogs are body language experts; to give an example, take the dogs who are especially trained to warn their owners of imminent epileptic seizures, these dogs can respond to the most subtle of bodily cues, so subtle, even the person who is about to have the seizure is unaware of.
How can understanding your dogs body language benefit you as a dog owner then? Understanding the non-verbal signals your dog displays both with humans and his own kind will will benefit you in a great number of ways. For example, understanding the unique way in which dogs communicate will help give you a deeper appreciation of the species and their unique abilities. The communication exchanges between you and your dog will ‘flow’ better , as you begin to better understand your dogs needs. With practice you will begin to assess your dogs emotional states much easier. Training your dog will be much easier also,as you will be able to assess the level of your dogs motivation and responses to various training situations.
Let us look now at the different ways dogs use their bodies to communicate both with humans and their own kind.
The happy dog
The behaviour of a happy dog is obvious to most dog owners. In this situation the dog seems light on it’s paws, his tail will wag erratically and he will move foreword to greet you if encouraged to do so.
The confident dog
Here the dogs stands tall, his ears held high with a wagging tail. If meeting a person or dog, he will stand head on and make eye contact.
The playful dog
A dog who displays playfulness is another set of behaviours that are commonly recognises by dog owners. In this situation, the dog will lower the front part of its body towards the floor, and at the same time keeping his back end erect. He will give eye contact and possibly bark in a bid to get your attention, or he may run around in circles and adopt the ‘playbow’ again, in an effort to get you to play with him.
The submissive dog
Submissiveness can be displayed in a number of ways through bodily signs, such as a lowered tail, ears pinned back, with lowered head. The dog will avert direct eye contact and if called may come but zigzag his way towards you. Some dogs may may display a facial expression almost like a grin, that is often accompanied by a nodding head.This action is a way of the dog attempting appease you, as he may be unsure as to your reaction towards him. In extreme cases, the dog will role over on its back,tuck his tail between his legs and may even urinate.
The anxious dog
A dog who shows anxiety, just appears totally ill at ease. His head may be carried low with ears back. His tail will be partially or full tucked between his legs and he may whimper, especially if further exposed to the stimulus he fears. His anxiety may make him over react to certain sights and sounds, for example a dog who is extremely anxious around loud traffic may hit the ground when a car passes by, or try to flee.
The fearful dog
A fearful dog displays both fearful and anxious behaviours, but to an exaggerated degree. His body posture will be almost crouched, his head held low, ears back and tail tucked between his legs. If he continues to feel fear, he may growl or show his teeth, which is a sure sign he may well attack if stressed further.
The dominant dog
A dominant dog acts in a similar manner to a dog who is very confident, so the two sets of behaviours can be confused. Essentially a dog who so displaying dominant behaviours will have his tail held high, with ears erect. He will face either the other dog head on and make direct eye contact. The dominant dog of the two may try to put his head above the other dogs neck area and this may be accompanied with low growling. If the other dog submits there will be no problem, however, if the other other dog resists, the interaction could well develop into a fight.
If the situation involves a human, the dominant dog will display the same type of behaviour. If you ever find yourself in the presence of such a dog, the best advice is not to try to dominate him, for example making eye contact, as this could be taken as a direct threat by the dog, and dominance could turn to aggression. The best way to deal with such a confrontation is to avoid eye contact with the dog and back slowly away from him. Dogs rarely bite without warning, and in reality most dogs don’t bite.
The aggressive dog
A dog who displays aggressive behaviour can also be obvious. Here the dogs body posture has an air of ‘I mean business’ about it. Dominant aggressive behaviour is different from nervous aggressive behaviour in that with nervous aggressive behaviour, the dogs seems to want to back away, as opposed to dominant aggressive behaviour were the dog in question will stand his ground. The fur on his back may be displayed, with ears pinned back. He will make direct eye contact, although his eyes may be narrowed. His tail will be straight and may even wag slowly. He may also show his teeth, along with a lot of ferocious barking.
If you find yourself in a situation with such a dog, don’t run or turn your back on him. Stay calm and back away slowly. Don’t make eye contact with such a dog, but at the same time don’t turn your back on him either, as this could give him an opportunity to strike. If you think that the dog may attack, do not run from him, as to do so would almost certainly cause him to chase and bite. Find something to put between you and the dog, say for example a piece of furniture, and back confidently and slowly away.