Canine Body Language
By Sasha Futran
Valentine’s Day and the bliss of sharing love with your significant other . . . by that I mean your dog, of course! Give your canine Valentine a hug and you’ll probably get a big lick in return. Or your dog will bounce off joyfully for a toy and rush back with an adoring look. But wait. Hugging isn’t generally understood as a friendly act by dogs; they can find hugs hostile and scary. In fact, a safe variation of a hug is used in temperament testing, to see if a dog’s reaction is uneasy tolerance, an attempt to escape, or even biting. So what makes your hug not just okay, but understood as an act of love?
Well, dogs have a lot of time on their paws, and they spend it observing us. So your dog knows exactly how you mean that hug. She understands your tone and attitude. She knows you wouldn’t hurt her. That understanding overrides the body language that in “dog talk” would otherwise have made the hug an aggressive act.
It’s the same with bending over and giving your dog a pat on the head. In canine language, bending over a dog is threatening. However, most dogs come to accept this as a friendly act. It’s just something humans do. But don’t try it with a dog who is anxious and scared, or one who is saying, in dog talk, “Please don’t come near me.”
Dogs and humans speak different body languages. This makes it easy to send the wrong message by mistake. Since good communication is key to any relationship, it’s important that what you are saying with your body is what you mean. It can make a difference in how quickly and solidly you bond. It can affect obedience training. It can play a role in resolving or exacerbating behavior problems.
For example, we humans look directly at one another when we talk. Our eyes pretty much stay connected and engaged, and we face one another directly. In fact, we would consider someone who spoke to us without eye contact a little odd. We’d find it rude if a person always had his body turned away. In dog language, however, one dog staring directly at another is an aggressive act. Most dogs understand this.
For that painfully shy or anxious dog, our body language can make a difference. Having your side to the dog rather than facing it squarely, or looking at the ground rather than staring at the animal when talking to him will make him a lot more comfortable. In dog talk, it’s the difference between saying “I come in peace,” and “Wanna fight?!”
Dogs communicate with one another using their bodies. And unlike most humans, they know that a wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean a friendly dog. Is the wag relaxed and wide, or is the tail straight out and the wag very slow? The exact positions of their tails and ears have meaning, too. Whether a dog’s eyes are open wide or closed into narrowed slits transmits important information. Small eyes, flattened ears, and a relaxed tail (neither rigidly upright nor tucked down between back legs) are signs of friendliness.
Reading a dog’s body language, of course, also depends on breed and body type. A Boxer has almost no tail to observe; a Chow has one that curls over the dog’s back; but a Retriever’s wagging tail is easy to see. Fortunately, there are other signs to observe as well. If you can’t read the tail, just look at what is going on with eyes, ears, mouth, and how the body is being held.
In her book, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist, reports that dogs yawn when stressed to calm themselves and others. You can yawn and calm your dog. I’ve done it and it works.
Learning how dogs communicate with their bodies can be a lot of fun. Think of it as living with someone who speaks a foreign language. Once you know a few words, the more you listen to them speak or, in this case, the more you observe how they use their bodies to communicate, the more you will understand.
Sasha Futran is a dog trainer and behavior
modification consultant. She will be giving a talk on dog body language to the