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Your dog’s body language

Know what your dog’s body language is telling you

For example, everyone knows that a dog wagging its tail is happy, right?  Well, not necessarily.  A wagging tail means the dog is in a “heightened state”.  This could be happiness, excitement, fear, stress or just uncertainty about a situation.

You need to read the rest of the body language too.  So, is the tail being held high, low down or straight out? Is it wagging quickly or slowly?  What about the position of the dog’s ears?  Is there any panting?  Are the hackles raised?  Where is the dog looking?

Of course, some dogs don’t have much of a tail to wag, or floppy ears that don’t change position, so it would be even more important to look at the whole picture to gauge exactly what the dog is feeling and thinking.  How many people have been caught out by their dog wagging their tale at another dog, only for him or her to then suddenly lunge, growling and snarling?  The tail-wagging was obviously about stress or fear rather than friendliness and this would have been visible from the rest of the body language.

A few years ago, there was a study where children were shown a photo of an angry snarling dog and asked what they thought the dog was doing.  A scarily high number of the children thought the dog was smiling because it was showing its teeth, so it would be OK to approach the dog and stroke it.

Even if you feel you know your own dog inside out, it’s important to be able to know what’s going on with other dogs when you meet them.  So my advice would be for all dog owners to brush up on canine body language, via a book or some research on the internet.

Does your dog react to other dogs when out?

We all know that this is a very common problem.  But dog owners/walkers often make the situation worse without realizing it.  The best thing you can do for your dog is to show them a calm reaction and show them that you are really not bothered by the other dog ie by saying nothing and moving on.

If you really feel the need to say something, stick to a positive-sounding “thank you” but nothing more.  If you tell your dog off, this will confirm to him/her that this is something to be bothered about as you are now barking as well.  If you try to reassure your dog by stroking, fussing etc this also confirms that you are concerned about the other dog’s presence and you are also rewarding him/her for his reaction.  Instead, you need to reward when he/she doesn’t react – this shows that this is the correct way to be around other dogs.

The same could apply if your dog reacts to certain other people, cars, bikes etc.