Last week, a friend of mine tagged me in a Facebook post. She'd been watching a dog program on TV and the people in the show were describing how unpredictable their dog was, never giving any warning before he bit. My friend indicated that she was absolutely shocked at how much these people missed about their dog! Apparently, the dog practically screamed "I'M GOING TO BITE YOU!" with his body language, but the people weren't seeing it. This truly flabbergasted me as in 30 years of observing dogs, I've never met one who didn't give a warning of some kind before biting. It's true some dogs are a bit more subtle than others (and we'll talk about why that is!), but, apparently, the dog in this program was very clear; my friend could "hear" him through the TV loud and clear. Too bad the owners couldn't.
Canine body language is one of my favorite subjects to talk about. There is so much information to cover, however, that I'm going to divide this into two, back-to-back blog posts. Those of you who are good observers of dog behavior may find this more of a review. But for those of you new to the world of dogs, or for those looking to better understand their canine companions, these posts are for you!
Dogs are keen observers of people and make every effort to understand our body language AND our words. And all of this is despite the fact that human language is not their first language, to say the least. Conversely, people can and should learn to read their dog's postures and signals to better understand what that dog is feeling and what its motivations are. Dogs are social creatures that are accustomed to living in group situations. This is why our affiliation with dogs works so well! While studies differ in their estimates, humans have likely had canine companions for around 32,000 years. and those early relationships served several needs. Canids are adept hunters, have great hearing, are warm-coated, smart and social. Early man quickly learned that a relationship with canids was mutually beneficial. It's also true that those early canids found heat, shelter, access to food, and protection of their young through their relationship with humans. Given the aloof nature of wolves, it is likely that early man selected for individuals who were curious and confident, traits which would bring them into close proximity to humans and also mean that a relationship could be formed. For a relationship to work, however, it must be in the best interest of both parties. For dogs, being around people meant an easier existence in trade for doing things that they already did in their own groups. Which brings us to the modern dog, in all of its odd variations. It is important to note that all of our selective breeding has led to some pretty odd looking canine companions, some of whom we have actually “crippled,” so to speak in terms of affecting their ability to communicate clearly both with each other and with us. For example, docking ears and tail hinders a dog's ability to communicate with people AND other dogs as ears and tail are used frequently when dogs communicate.
I've often heard owners lament that they wish dogs could talk. Ah, but they do! Dogs speak, they just don't use verbal language like us. They have a range of vocal abilities AND utilize every inch of their bodies in order to converse. They are incredibly expressive! This combination of sounds and body language is called meta-communication. Humans use meta-communication as well. For example, the use of sarcasm in combination with a sassy facial expression is meta-communication. Basically, we are saying, “just kidding!” Dogs actually do this too. For example, a dog might play bow and then growl and pounce on a playmate. The play bow lets the dog being jumped on know, “hey everything after this is just play and thus meant to be fun!” Without that bow first, the growl and pounce could be perceived as aggressive, just as the sarcasm could be perceived as you being a real jerk without the added, “just kidding!” Thus, meta-communication is all of the nonverbal cues (tone of voice, body language, gestures, facial expression, etc.) that carry meaning and that either enhance or disallow what we say in words. It's that whole conversation going on beneath the surface. Not surprisingly, dogs do this too.
Dogs learn body language during the first 8 weeks of life and begin testing their knowledge on their littermates. If a dog misses out on this training, he will have trouble communicating his whole life. It is often the case that dogs who missed out on this end up being the kind of dogs who give mixed signals to other dogs creating tension, anxiety, and aggression. No single posture or expression can be used alone to determine a dog's motivation. You must look at their facial expression, ear set, tail carriage, as well as overall demeanor to determine what they are feeling.
Dog faces come in many shapes and sizes, but they can still provide you with great information. Dogs are able to vary the shape and size of their eyes. Take that in combination with the direction of their gaze, and its intensity, and you can get a good quick bead on what they are feeling. If your dog's eyes are large and wide it means he is feeling threatened in some way. Your dog's eyes being smaller than normal can also indicate fear and stress....think of the squinty-eyed submissive dog. Dogs rarely look directly into each other's eyes as this is considered threatening. Thus a dog who stares at another dog is being confrontational. Dogs who want to appear less threatening look away, something called gaze aversion. They often stand sideways as well. Dogs can learn to hold our gaze on command (the watch me, or look at me command) and they will more readily gaze into our eyes than those of other dogs because they have LEARNED that people seek that out. But they most certainly do NOT do it with one another without repercussions. A dog who looks out of the corner of his eye or the whites of his eyes are showing is often a dog ready to have an aggressive outburst. Called “whale-eye,” it is often seen in a dog actively guarding a resource. Remember, a dog may give a sideways glance when resting its head, but this is accompanied by a relaxed posture and therefore the context of the sideways glance is more important than the glance itself.
Dogs position their lips, jaws, and teeth in ways that can communicate a great deal of information about what they are feeling. Is the mouth tightly closed with puckered lips? Staring? Showing teeth? That's scary. Is the mouth open, tongue lolling? That's a happy dog. Is the dog's mouth open slightly in a grin, looking away? Submissive for sure. Add in a flicking tongue, licking the lips, and the dog is actively trying to appease or relieve tension. Add in some exaggerated yawns and you've got a pretty stressed out dog.
While there are a wide variety of ear shapes and sizes, they are still a good gauge of a dog's feelings. Regardless of ear shape, when a dog is relaxed and comfortable, the ears are held in their most natural position for that breed of dog. When the dog is alert, the ears will be higher and directed toward whatever has their interest. Ears back slightly is friendly and a bit submissive, all the way back is scared and may be a precursor to aggression. Ears out to the sides signals conflicted feelings, maybe submissive or frightened, you have to check the rest of the context to be sure.
At this point, we should all know by now that a wagging tail does not necessarily signal a happy dog. Aggressive dogs wag their tails and sometimes happy dogs do not. A dear friend of mine likes to say that you shouldn't use a dog's tail to determine how they are feeling as that is not the end of the dog that bites! Just as with ears, a comfortable dog will hold his tail in the natural position for his breed. Super happy dogs wag their tails forcefully from side to side or even in a circle. Nervous dogs wag their tails low and slow or may even just tuck the tail protectively. An alert or aroused dog has his tail higher than normal and may move it very stiffly if at all (flagging tail). Look at the rest of the dog's body as a flagging upright tail accompanied by ears back, teeth showing, and stiff body posture overall signals imminent aggression. And a fun fact: Research has discovered that when a dog sees someone they like, their tail wags more to the right. With unfamiliar people, the tail wags more to the left. This is another reason why dogs without tails or docked tails are at a disadvantage. They are missing a key body part for proper communication, so people and other dogs may misread what they are saying. And some dogs without tails (or very docked tails) wag with their whole bodies!
Dogs can actually communicate (albeit unintentionally) with their hair. Dogs who are scared or stressed shed profusely in the moment (think of the dog in the vet's office who drops a pound of hair during the visit all over your clothes!). It is also true that they piloerect (hackling or hair standing on end) when aroused, whether good or bad. This doesn't mean the dog is aggressive or scared necessarily, just aroused. Much like the hair stands up on your arms or the back of your neck when you walk through a haunted house! You will have to look at what else is going on to make a determination of a dog's intent if their hair is up. And then, of course, there is a breed of dog who always has “hackles up,” the Rhodesian Ridgeback! More than once in class, I've had someone tell me that a Rhodesian Ridgeback was posturing aggressively, when in fact the dog had done nothing, other than have that ridge along his back!
Dogs can also make themselves look bigger or smaller, if they are ramping up for a confrontation (bigger) or trying to avoid one (smaller). Happy dogs have a relaxed body posture with their weight equally balanced over all four feet. Playful dogs may be bouncing and running around with greatly exaggerated movements, but their overall expression will be relaxed and natural.
Dogs who are scared are hunched with head held low; they will recoil away from what is bothering them. If still curious, you may see a tentative approach, but flight may still be imminent as evidenced by his back feet in the “ready to flee” position. Submissive dogs look like the scared dog, only they are closer to the ground, may cower, offer a submissive grin, roll over to expose their belly, accompanied by whining and even urinating. An assertive dog appears alert and large. His muscles are tense and it's like he is up on the balls of his feet or slightly forward, ready to engage. An aggressive dog will go for intimidation by adding in direct threats, ready to lunge.
Dogs can add to all of this body posturing with sound. They have a wide range of barks, yips, whines, howls, squeals, etc. What is most interesting to me about the sounds that dogs make is this: Scientists have played back dog sounds to other dogs, without any visual cues, and the dogs hearing the sounds responded appropriately! That is, a dog without any visual cues that hears an aggressive bark will gaze avert, tuck its tail, lick its lips, yawn, try to move away, etc.
While it is certainly possible for dogs to misread the cues they are given by other dogs, it isn't generally the case. More likely, a dog is taking advantage of the cues he is receiving to get the upper hand. Thus, one dog may be offering appeasement in the form of lip licking and gaze aversion and instead of reciprocating with appropriate signals, the other takes advantage of this deference in an attempt to control the situation or even aggress. Even still, if something like this were to happen, the first dog who we will call the appeaser, might try to use displacement gestures like yawning, sniffing the ground, or even sneezing and scratching in order to self calm AND direct the aggressor's attention away from him and diffuse the situation.
Next week's blog will look even more closely at the way dogs communicate with each other and with us. Such a fascinating topic definitely requires more than one post!
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.