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Dogs: understanding man’s best friend through body language

Art by Jessica Calaguas

Dogs are some of the most beloved animals on the planet, and for good reason. They are loyal, compassionate, playful, and obviously, adorable. They have been part of the police force, and even trained to ride a skateboard. Dogs have shown that they are extremely intelligent, yet humans still don’t appreciate all of the ways that they communicate. In order for us to truly understand our canine companions, we need to be able to read their body language.

One of the most misinterpreted forms of body language is tail wagging. Tail wagging is most commonly seen as a sign of pleasure and contentment in dogs, but that is not always the case. Tail wagging simply means that the dog is, according to the American Kennel Club, “emotionally aroused”. It can convey enthusiasm, but could also represent frustration or aggression.

Some key things to look out for when deciphering your dog’s emotional state via tail wagging are the speed and direction of the wag, as well as the position of the tail itself. Here’s a brief example of two forms of tail wagging, courtesy of the American Kennel Club: “Think about those long, slow, side-to-side tail sweeps your dog makes when greeting you — the type that wag the dog’s whole body. That’s a relaxed dog. A faster twitch-like wag indicates a higher level of arousal and possibly in a negative way. Think of a guard dog on alert.”

Photo credit: Artem Beliaikin / Unsplash

The final element of tail wagging in dogs is the position of the tail relative to the ground. As stated by the American Kennel Club; “The higher the tail, the more assertive the dog. Dogs with their tails pointing down to the ground or even tucked between their legs are feeling fear and stress. Dogs with their tails held up like a flag are feeling confident, perhaps even aggressive. Relaxed dogs hold their tails in a neutral position, but neutral depends on the breed.” So, pay attention to your dog and their mood in order to gauge what their neutral tail position is.

Next, the epitome of body language, posture. Posture in dogs can be difficult to decipher, but once you can recognize the patterns and signals that your dog displays, you’ll definitely feel a greater connection with them. When it comes to posture, there are conflict-related behaviors, and then there are examples of “submission”, which is what you want to be seeing in your dog.

According to VCA Hospitals; “Benign, subtle postures usually come before more aggressive, bold communications, but an individual dog may skip subtle signals or progress through graduated signals extremely rapidly depending on his or her perception of the situation and past experiences.” So basically, know your dog. Do they have sudden moments of aggression? If so, what does the buildup to those moments look like? If you can answer these two questions, then you can very likely prevent future instances of aggression in your dog.

Photo by Izak Menta

On the contrary, submissive signals are exactly what you want your dog to be displaying. After all, you are the one in charge, not the dog. Some examples of submissive behavior include avoiding direct eye contact, low crouching, raising a front paw, lying down, and of course, rolling over to expose the stomach. These behaviors are pretty much built into dogs, and you will most likely see them displayed similarly in almost every dog you meet.

Last but not least, facial expressions. Dogs and humans do display similar facial expressions, although the meaning of these expressions contrast. For example, yawning. Humans yawn when tired or bored, but dogs yawn in an attempt to alleviate stress. Turid Rugaas, author of On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, suggests yawning at your dog to comfort them when it is apparent that they are stressed out. And yes, dogs can catch yawns as well.

Another commonly misinterpreted example of body language is lip licking. Dogs do lick their lips after eating, but it can also convey that they are feeling anxious. In addition, some dogs do smile, although it is not to be confused with bared teeth. When a dog is snarling, you’ll notice that the corner of the dog's lips form a C shape, and the entirety of the front teeth are visible. When smiling, a dog’s front teeth will still be visible, but the smile will most likely be paired with a, according to the American Kennel Club; “loose and wiggly posture”. The dog’s general attitude is, “Hello, I mean no harm.”

Photo by Izak Menta

The way dogs communicate is truly captivating, and we humans really take it for granted. How can a dog be a human's best friend if we can’t even understand each other? It’s definitely hard, but knowing your dog and its quirks is the first step to building a stronger relationship. Take the time, get to know each other, and I promise that you won’t regret it.


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