Dogs don’t use words to speak to us but use their bodies instead to show how they feel or what they are about to do.
It can be quite revealing at the club to observe the dogs as they arrive with their owners in tow who are usually quite oblivious of their own dog’s intentions. Some puppies want to play, others want to attack and some are more interested in smells on the ground. Yet their owners want them to say “Hi” to the other dogs even if the dog’s body language warns against it. They cannot tell the difference between a happy, friendly dog and a shy or scared dog or the body language of an aggressive one.
Fortunately these owners are the ones making the effort to learn about dog training which should include body language (signals) so that they can gain a better understanding of what their dogs are telling them. Understanding canine expressive behaviour definitely improves the relationship between humans and dogs. Unfortunately, most of us were taught to be “pack leaders” and that your dog must “respect you”. This invariably, wrongfully, is interpreted as a necessity to dominate your dog and little attention is given to what our dog tells us.
Dogs, being pack animals, communicate with each other in their own way. Canine “language” consists of a large variety of signals using body, face, ears, tails, sounds, movement and expressions. These signals are largely innate in nearly all dogs. We have all seen puppies lying down, belly up, in submission and then again giving a “play bow” moments later, inviting another puppy to play.
Happy dogs “smile.” The mouth is slightly open and the tongue can be seen or is hanging out. Eyes are relaxed and soft and sometimes closed in a squint like look. Ears are relaxed, soft and flappy in most breeds. The bodies are loose, almost wriggly and silly as they rub against you or each other and go into their “play bows.” Tails are low and wagging.
Happy dogs are loose and cuddly in their whole appearance and seem to want you to touch and play with them. They generally come running to greet you.
Tense dogs stiffen their bodies. Their mouths are usually closed and their eyes are harder. They have a look of concentration or stare at you or at other dogs. The body is stiff and the tail is higher, stiff but may also wag.
Scared dogs are inclined to pull their bodies back when other dogs approach. Their heads lift up and backwards and the ears are also pulled back. They have a worried look and often a furrowed brow. They show the whites of their eyes and want to hide behind their owners. Their bodies are closer to the ground and their body weight is moved to the back legs.
Aggressive dogs stand tall in a stiff-legged stance, leaning slightly forward so that their body weight is shifting to the front legs. Ears point forward but may spread slightly to the side to form a wide V shape. The nose is wrinkled and the lips curled. Teeth are visible since the mouth is open and the corner of the mouth is forward. Hackles are raised; the tail is also raised and bristled. The tail is stiff and may quiver or vibrate from side to side.
Stress Some dogs become stressed when they arrive at the club. Suddenly they see many other dogs and strangers. They usually have a look of bewilderment about them. They seem unable to concentrate and shy away from other dogs and want to run back to the car or hide behind their owners.
I try to determine the level of stress in a dog by offering a treat either from a standing or submissive position or going down to the dog’s level. If a dog is not willing to take a treat from me, a stranger, I then ask the owner to offer him the same treat. If the dog takes it from the owner then the level of stress is not too high and the dog is encouraged to ease its way into class activities. If the dog does not want to take the treat from its owner then the stress level is such that they need to watch activities from a distance until the dog is more relaxed and calm.
Calming signals isa term first used by Turid Rugaas*.She identified many of these signals and explained how dogs use them. All dog trainers and owners should take note of the main ones.
A signal can be a swift or a tiny movement that we might miss but the dogs won’t.
Turning of the head is used to tell an approaching dog to calm down or slow down. When two dogs meet they look away for a second and then greet happily. When you stoop over your dog or approach too fast he will stand still and turn his head away. A camera held in front of your face is scary to most dogs and they will look away. Eye-contact or staring can have the same reaction.
I am always amused to see how Memphis turns his head, in a perfect dog calming signal, when Sage, my calico cat, has to come past him to sit on my lap.
Freezing iswhen a dog stops, stands still, sits or lies down without moving a muscle when a bigger dog comes too close and starts sniffing him all over.
Turning his side or back to someone is very calming. This is seen very often when dogs play with each other and is a call to calm down a little. Dogs that are inclined to rush to people and jump up can be discouraged by turning your back to them.
Play bowing is a clear signal of an invitation to play. Lowering the front half of the body with the rear in the air and standing still is a play bow gesture. When dogs want to play they often start with a play bow to tell the other dog, “I want to be your friend” and what follows is meant in fun. “I can jump on your back but it should not be taken as a threat or aggression.” Dogs also invite other dogs to play by barking, pawing at them or jumping on the other dog.
Walking slowly away when your dog sees another dog is his way of calming things down. This is also seen when your dog is frightened of you. Coming back slowly after a recall or instead of coming straight towards you he comes in a wide curve, he could be telling you not to be angry like you were the previous time.
When you want to catch a stray dog you need to move slowly towards him and crouch down in a submissive position. Rushing at a dog will create the opposite effect.
Yawning is a common calming signal given by dogs. Repeat visits to the Vet may have a dog yawning as you enter his rooms. At the beginning of training exercises your dog may yawn to give a calming signal for you to keep it short or not to be too demanding. I have noticed this behaviour with bitches in particular, Juno and Polo and not so much with Coyote or Quanto.
Tail wagging is not necessarily a sign of happiness. The whole body must be looked at. If you have been annoyed and yelled at someone you may find your bitch come crawling to you tail wagging to make you calm again.
Sitting down Your dog may turn to face you or just sit down when another dog approaches. He may also sit instead of coming to you if there is anger in your voice. This calming signal is used when dogs feel uncomfortable.
Licking the nose is a very quick movement of the tongue in front the nose and is a calming signal. It is so quick that unless you are aware of it you may miss it. When another dog approaches your dog may use it. Bending over your dog or a verbal correction could have him lick his nose.
Other signals used by dogs that are not calming signals but are easier to see and are more threatening, arestaring, stooping over, growling, barking, baring of teeth, raising of the hackles and tails. Some tell us about the level of excitement the dog is experiencing at that moment. It is important to watch for other signs. A deeper bark or growl sound means, “If you do not stop I’m going to attack.”
Licking of the face, blinking of the eyes, smacking of the lips and lifting their paws are other signs of submission and dominance.
Each dog owner should teach himself the skill of recognizing the signals through which dogs communicate with each other and its human. We need to sit still at home and take time to observe our dogs – first alone and then with other dogs. You need to know them well enough to be able to identify the signals when they happen. You will be able to understand your dog much better and to really know how your dog is feeling.
When next you see a child hugging your dog in such a way that the dog pulls away, looks away, licks lips, yawns or lift a leg you will know that he is sending calming signals. You can then distract the child or get him/her not to hug so tightly or to rather stroke or brush your dog and prevent the meeting from causing harm.
Once I noticed that after Polo was given something to eat on a plate, Quanto approached to see what it was, But Polo’s body stiffened and her head turned ever so slightly in his direction. He got the message and turned away. She was going to defend her food and fight if necessary. Her signals were so subtle but the big dog picked it up immediately and backed off. This may not happen in your case but knowing the signals will enable you to stop a confrontation before it starts.
When your dogs are excited before a walk you can try and calm them down by turning sideways to them or yawn, lick your lips, blink your eyes etc. It can be quite amusing to see their reaction when the calming signals come from you. At night, when my dogs come rushing for their going to bed treats, I yawn or lick my lips when they arrive. Polo reacts by immediately sitting down and Quanto gives a quick tongue lick. Try it with your dogs!
*Turid Rugaas: a Norwegian dog trainer – “The Art of Survival.”