Your dogs’ primary form of communication is their body, if you watch your dog carefully during any interaction you will notice that they are communicating the whole time. Many of the signals your dog gives last only a second or two, and if you are unaware of what the signals mean you may miss what they are trying to tell you.
Dogs often have universal signals that will be understood by other well socialised dogs to either tell the other dog to ‘back off’ or ‘come closer’. If these signals are not understood by the person or other dog the signals must be escalated that will leave you (or the other dog) in no doubt about the dogs’ feelings. It is a mistake to think that your dogs’ behaviour ‘comes out of nowhere’. There will always be signals in the beginning, but if these signals continue to be ignored the dog may feel they have to skip the initial signals and jump straight to the extreme behaviour in order to get a response. As I was writing this article I felt that my ideas were better conveyed through pictures and explanations, it will take the guess work out of it for you.
This first picture is of a relaxed, happy dog that is comfortable in their surroundings. You can see that the tail is held at neutral, moving naturally with the body, the ears are relaxed and the eyes are not intensely staring. This dogs’ tongue is also lolling around a relaxed open mouth, all being a sure sign of contentedness. This looks like a dog that is tired and happy and will sleep well when it is back at home.
When interpreting the body language of a dog it is vital that you look (and listen) at the entire dog. This means watching the lips, tongue, ears, eyes, legs, back and tail. Next time you see your dog interacting with another dog really examine their whole body, you will see some amazing things.
This next picture (right) is of a dog that is feeling a little anxious about the situation they are in. You can see that the ears are back, close to the head. The tail is down, although not all the way between the legs, and the eyes are focused on the hand, while the body weight is leaning away. All four legs look stiff, ready to move at a moments notice. The head is facing in an awkward position to the rest of the body, suggesting stiffness in movement. The mouth is closed and the lips are tightly drawn forward. The back also looks slightly arched, suggesting tension in the body. The lead looks tight, so the dog may also be feeling trapped in this situation.
When you are interpreting your dogs’ body language you should also take in to account the context your dog is in before deciding on their emotional state. Take yawning for instance, when dogs yawn it can be a sign of anxiety, or it can mean that they are simply tired. If you see your dog yawning, be aware of the context your dog is in, and pay attention to the rest of their body.
The dogs to the left are both yawning. However, the dog on the far left looks more tense, she has her eyes wide open with the whites showing (whale eye) and the corners of the mouth are pursed. The tongue is also further back inside the mouth. The dog on the right has a different kind of yawn. Its eyes are closed, corners of the mouth relaxed back, and the tongue is hanging out more. This dog is also stretching and may be about to lie down. If your dog is yawning at the park with other dogs around, it is unlikely that it is tired. If, on the other hand, your dog is laying in bed and yawns it is probably a sign they are settling down for the evening. Always remember the context you are in before interpreting your dogs’ signals.
When confronted by a situation that is a little tense, your dog may want to calm the situation down. It is believed that dogs display these calming signals* in order to ease the tension inside them, as well as within the other dog. Common calming behaviours are; laying down on their side or back (pictured left), tongue flicking (pictured right), yawning, frequently looking away (pictured left in the border collie) and play bowing. Next time your dog is presented with a stressful situation you may notice them participating in these behaviours. These behaviours are important, and should never be discouraged- they will keep your dog safe. Shaking of the body is another behaviour dogs’ frequently use after they have overcome a stress response, but again, it needs to be taken in context. If your dog is wet, they may just need to shake off excess water.
The following video link is of Ben in a stressful situation, watch for his calming signals. You will notice that Ben vocalises a little, but his vocalisation is much different to the other dogs. Pay attention to the other dogs body postures, they are stiff and their eyes have an intense stare. Ben, by contrast, shows a fluid motion. You can see him thinking of ways to defuse the situation. He paces, looks away many times, he retrieves a stick, lays down, and even starts eating grass. All of these behaviours convey that he is no threat to the other dogs, and it works. Keep an eye out for the body shake, it occurs after the initial shock of the barking dogs.
I have not included pictures of dogs that are showing the more overt signs of anxiety or aggression (cowering, bared teeth etc) because these behaviours are obvious signs of discomfort that many people are aware of. Instead, I wanted to focus on the more subtle signals your dog is giving, so that you will respond appropriately and hopefully never be presented with some of those more extreme behaviours.
If you are aware of the signals your dog is giving, you will always be in a better position to interpret how your dog is feeling and respond appropriately. I saw a sad event at one State obedience trial a couple of years ago that will stick with me forever. A man had put his dog in a down stay, the dog moved, and when the man returned to the dog, the dog instantly lay down on the ground, with his belly showing, ears back, and tail between the legs. The man unfortunately was so frustrated that he was yelling at his dog to ‘get up!’ Of course the dog would never get up because it was feeling threatened, this is a natural position a dog assumes when they need to calm a situation down. This man failed to respond appropriately to his dogs’ signals.
Some people interpete their dog laying down as ‘guilt’ or ‘sorrow’ when in fact all your dog is doing is reacting to your anger or frustration, and trying to calm and reduce the risk of tension escalating and someone getting hurt. If you respond appropriately to your dog, your relationship will become stronger, and you will reduce the risk of you or your dog getting hurt.
Appropriate socialisation is the best way for your dog to learn how to communicate with other dogs. Much of this communication is not innate, it is learned, and the only way your dog will learn this is by interacting with other dogs. If you can introduce your young puppy around well socialised older dogs they will learn all of these social cues that are so important for maintaining peace. You can also help your puppy or dog by introducing them to as many new dogs as possible.
Sometimes, dogs that interact with the same dogs each day do not get the opportunity to participate in polite greetings which are often dense with physical gesturing. Take the time to socialise your dog so they learn skills that will serve them well forever, and you will always be happy to have them off lead at any dog park.
*Turid Rugass coined the term ‘calming signals’ in her book:
Rugass, T (2006) “On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals”.