Dear Pet Column, I liked your column last week on interpreting cat communication and am wondering about ways to better understand my dog. For example, I am always baffled when he growls and wags his tail at the same time when meeting new dogs. How do I know what is he saying?
Sincerely, Baffled by Banter
Dear Baffled, my name is Chap, I am the senior dog (10 year old Maltese) here at the Second Chance shelter willing to share with you my wisdom of the years. Although I have learned to provide clear signals to communicate my emotional state I have also learned that people don’t always recognize or pay attention to my signals.
When interpreting a dog’s body language remember that we are experts at interpreting yours and that your movements have a direct impact upon how we respond to you. The “bite that came out of nowhere” is typically precipitated by numerous warnings to your threatening body signals.
There are some very obvious clues that we provide to demonstrate our wide range of emotions from joy to anger to fear. I am going to break our communication system into six major areas that are most important to pay attention to when assessing a dog’s mood. These are the tail, ears, eyes, mouth, hair, and body posture. In breaking them down singularly it is important to recognize that the signals work in collaboration so you must pay attention to them collectively:
tucked under – submissive or fearful
low and still – relaxed
low-medium height & gently waving – relaxed & friendly
low-medium height & fast wag – appeasing, happy, friendly
high & fast wag – tense, aroused (play or aggression)
pinned back – submissive or fearful
back & relaxed – relaxed & friendly
forward & relaxed – aware, friendly
pricked forward – alert, aroused, (play or aggression)
averted, no eye contact – submissive or fearful
squinting or closed – submissive, happy greeting
soft, direct – relaxed & friendly
wide open – confident, assertive
hard stare – alert, aroused (play or aggression)
lips pulled back – submissive or fearful
lips relaxed – calm & friendly
lips puckered forward/lifted in snarl – assertive/threat
standing on end – arousal (aggression, fear, or excited in play)
lowered rump – submissive or fearful
standing at full height – confident & relaxed
shoulders lowered, hindquarters elevated – play bow, invitation to play
tense posture – alert, aroused (typically aggression or fear)
Attending to the various cues above, and to the environment that a dog is responding to, is the best way to begin understanding the communication of dogs. Like me, most dogs just want to live happy and secure lives and we make every effort to attain this state.
This happy state of being has been somewhat elusive in my life and my friends here at Second Chance are committed to changing that for me. They are searching for a new home for me where I can bond with a family willing to take the time to earn my trust. Although a senior, I have plenty of spirit and playfulness left and I do love to cuddle. I am seeking a gentle heart and hand, a quiet home with a soft bed, and forever companionship.