Understanding what your dog is telling you – Part 1

Your dog has the ability to tell you exactly how he feels – whether he is happy, sad, bored, excited, disgusted, puzzled, confident, uneasy or frightened.

The inconspicuous and almost continuous movements of his eyes, ears, body and tail are his emotional body language and his primary means of communication. Researchers are finding that, rather than being limited in their means of expression, animals are attuned to an extremely subtle and refined system of communication.

The wild dogs of Africa studied by Jane Goodall and wolves observed by Dr. Michael W. Fox, recognized authority on canine body language, communicated to each other a wide range of attitudes, including anger, dominance, submission, joy, interest, disgust, dismay, affection and fear – using only the slightest body movements.

Though domesticated dogs have lost some sensitivity to this language in their dealings with humans, they still use most of these instinctive, inherited forms of communication. With practice, a sensitive observer with a  keen eye can learn to read his dog’s body language.

As he becomes more skilled at identifying subtle changes of mood in his pet, his communication and companionship with him will grow deeper and more pleasurable.

Veterinarians with long experience often read canine body language well, noticing the smallest nuances. Dr. Theodore Stanton, a veterinarian who has practiced now for more than forty years, has become an expert at it. He frequently acts as interpreter for his patients when their owners bring them in for treatment and ask him why their dog is doing certain peculiar things.

“Among Dogs, as among most animals, a hierarchy exists in every group,” says Dr. Stanton.

He goes on to say, “From the most dominant ‘top dog’ to the lowest ‘under dog,’ each dog works out with each other in the group which of them will be dominant and which will be submissive. Much of a dog’s body language is used in the context of establishing these dominant-submissive relationships with other dogs and also with people.”

A dog uses every part of his body in some way to express his feelings and intentions. The appendage he uses most conspicuously and expressively is his tail.

“You can tell everything by a dog’s tail,” explains Mr. Stanton, “He holds it up when he is alert and expecting something. If he has met a strange dog or heard an unusual sound, it quivers a little. He is saying, ‘I’m ready for danger; I’m ready for anything!”

The Doctor finishes with, “A tail held very high – almost vertically – or arched over his back says he feels aggressive and dominant, and intends to do something about it if necessary. The dog with his tail tucked tightly between his hind legs is saying, ‘I’m scared, and I’m getting out of here!’”