Recently, there's been a renaissance in learning how dogs communicate. This focus on reading dogs' language comes from the popularity of many "animal whisperers" that seem to tell what pets are thinking. When you examine their "discussions" with pets, they're not actually talking to them to find out what's going on. They're delving into the art of reading animal behavior. They tune themselves to animal behaviors and use those along with verbal cues to tell the dogs' moods.
Most dogs rely on barks and growls as well as many high-pitched whines for communication. As pet owners, we've no doubt experienced this kind of interaction from our dogs, but it goes deeper than that. All across the Animal Kingdom, communication happens through sounds and body language. Here, we explore how you could learn to read your dog's body language like any professional "animal whisperer" and what different types of behavior may mean.
A Wagging Tail
We've all seen our dogs happy, coming up to us with their tail wagging rapidly. As pet owners, we often believe that tail-wagging is a positive response and that our pet must be happy. We've all seen our dogs trotting over to us, tail going crazy as they come for us to pet them. However, the truth is that a fast-wagging tail isn't a sign of happiness, just that the dog is feeling incredibly emotional. Whether that emotion is happiness, fear or uncertainty is impossible to tell from just looking at the dog approach you.
The rate of wagging will tell you how emotionally alert your fur baby is. If your dog's tail is going rapidly back and forth, it's a good sign that their feelings are running very high. In such a case, just like humans, they might not be able to make decisions and just fall back on instinct. A slow, gentle wag means the dog's in full control of their emotions, but a faster, more frenetic twitch-wag is a suggestion that something's not right. These rapid twitch-wags are what you'd find when your dog gets alert and is likely to respond to interaction negatively. Anxiety can be a serious factor in their interaction. A calming pet bed can go a long way towards helping your dog deal with their feelings by giving them a safe place to go back to.
Recent studies have shown that the direction of the wag is also something that pet owners should consider. The study noticed that dogs tend to wag more to the right when they're looking forward to an interaction, like meeting with their owner, for example. They tend to wag with emphasis on the left when it's an interaction they're unsure or unhappy about. The helicopter tail wag where the tail goes in a circle while they're wagging it is unmistakably happy, and it's the one you should be most familiar with as a pet owner.
Tail Position also plays an integral part in determining how a dog feels about a particular situation. The higher a dog's tail appears, the more assertive their stance. Dogs that are afraid or stressed put their tail between their legs as a sign of not being in control. Dogs whose tails are straight up in the air are assertive and might even be dangerous. The natural shape of the dog's tail matters in these situations since some breeds have natural curling tails that make them seem assertive at all times.
A Dog With Raised Hackles
Many writers have described dogs with raised hackles, but few bother to explain what that means. The scientific term is called "piloerection," but we see it as when our pet's hair on their backs starts standing up. This response is a natural evolutionary response to something they feel threatened by. Dogs revert to their primitive forms, fluffing up their hair, increasing their size to make them look more formidable as a result. Raised hackles might be a response to anger and stress, or even fear and challenge. However, it could just as easily result from being interested in something. Curious dogs also have raised hackles when investigating something new or exciting.
Posture or Stance
How a dog stands in front of you is also a sign of their mood. Cowering is usually done with the dog's head between their paws, bent in a submissive way. This posture shows that the dog is afraid or stressed out - not a good sign for a pet owner. If a dog wants to submit completely, they may roll onto their belly. However, this particular posture might be confusing since dogs also do this to solicit belly-rubs from humans. Figuring out which is which comes down to reading the other behavioral traits alongside the posture.
The opposite of the submission stance is the aggression stance, where the dog tries to get forward. Typically, the pup will have a lowered head and show raised hackles while trying to appear bigger and more aggressive than what they're going up against. A more common behavioral prompt is the play-bow. Dogs tend to use this as an invitation to other dogs to play with them, one that's universally understood. Pointing behavior, where a dog uses their paw to indicate something, can be trained. Some breeds, such as the English Setter, usually use this behavior when the dog finds prey and wants to reveal it to its owner. For most other breeds, however, it means your pup is uncertain about a particular situation.
Reading the Signs
Understanding what your pup is feeling doesn't require any complex training. Many of these dog behaviors are standard across all breeds, and once you notice it in one, you'll start seeing them in all. Behavioral prompts like these can help you ascertain whether your dog is in a positive or a negative mood and can help you be a better pet parent. Reading your dog's disposition is listening to them as if they were a person. They can't speak, but they can communicate with you if you're inclined to listen. Give them a chance, and you might be surprised how much simple behavioral prompts can tell you.