If you love your dog, you are not alone. There are over 78 million owned dogs in the U.S. An astonishing 78 percent of these dog owners reportedly count their canines as one of the family. We love our friendly, furry counterparts. Period. And we are constantly trying to decipher and understand what their body language says, or doesn’t say, about them. Plain and simple, we want to know what they think and, more importantly, what they feel about us.
Animal behaviorists say it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on in his head, if you learn to read his reactions. Debra Horwitz, vet behaviorist and lead editor of Decoding Your Dog, says the key is looking at your whole dog, rather than a portion of him. Observing what your dog does with his body as a whole in any given situation will let you know if he’s feeling relaxed, scared, aggressive or concerned.
Is your dog happy? Horwitz says, “When a dog is happy, his whole body looks soft. And when a happy dog wags his tail, the tail wags his whole body. He has relaxed ears, a soft pant, eyes are soft. Everything about him says, ‘I’m cool. I’m good.’” The longer you have your dog and the better you get to know him, the more skilled you will become in reading his body language.
Is your dog stimulated and/or interested in what they are doing? A dog with a job, a purpose, that’s doing what his genes tell him to do is a happy dog, Horwitz says. A border collie who is being directed through an obstacle course, a retriever who is fetching or a terrier who gets a chance to sniff out a new critter are all examples of dogs doing what they were meant to do; what they were built to do. When you show the merest possibilities of these activities, your dog may react out of pure joy, wag its tail, bark, grin and spin in circles. You know the drill. When you find out what makes your dog happy, offer him this activity often or as a reward.
Is he concerned? Your dog may draw his ears closer to his head, pant a little faster, close his mouth to enable him to sniff or open his eyes wider letting in more light when he is nervous. Dogs also show concern by stiffening the tail and wagging it in a way that doesn’t wag the body. Dogs may do this when meeting a new dog or presented with a novel situation. This is how they show that they are thinking, assessing. Your dog’s tail may also stand straight up, showing heightened alertness.
Is your dog afraid or angry? Dog lovers often confuse fear in their pets with shame or guilt, says Melissa Bain, assistant professor of clinical animal behavior at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. A dog reacting by holding his body close to the ground, tucking his tail between his legs and pinning his ears back is often afraid of the reaction they, in turn, will get from their caregiver after undesirable behaviors. Bain says, “He may look like he feels guilty, but he’s actually scared and anxious about what you might do.” Being afraid of someone your dog doesn’t know looks different. Dogs will most times get into a defensive posture signaling that he is ready to fight when afraid of something or someone unknown, Horwitz says. Dogs who go rigid and tall are trying to make themselves look bigger than they are by a high and stiff tail are acting “macho” and hoping the threat will go away.
Many times, we will misread our fluffy friends. You may think your dog is angry at you when they tear up your furniture, chewing a beloved item or knocking and going through the trash. Most dogs fear being alone, and many have separation anxiety that comes out in one or more of these behaviors. Lack of exercise or not getting enough attention is also common with these behaviors.
In closing, doggies and doggie things are a billion dollar industry trying to sell you this and that to eradicate unwanted symptoms or produce desirable actions in your pet, but learning how to properly read your animal is the first step in deciphering behaviors and actions in just one more member of your family.