What Is Your Dog Thinking/Doing?
There are plenty of reasons why your dog may do something that displeases you, but unlike a kid with their hand caught in the cookie jar, your dog can’t explain themselves! In this module, we’re going to teach you about natural and normal dog behaviors, so you can identify when your dog is simply being a dog, versus when they are actually acting out. We’ll also help you understand a dog’s learning process and motivation, so you can adapt your training techniques to better reflect your dog’s needs. You’ll be able to read your dog’s body language to determine how they’re feeling, and we’ll also teach you to interpret their vocal language. Being able to appreciate your dog’s psychology and behavior will make training a snap – and you’ll finally learn what your dog is thinking!
In this module, we’ll cover the following topics:
2.1. Hereditary Traits and Ancestry
2.2. How Humans Shape Dog Development
2.3. Understanding The Dog Learning Process
2.4. Normal Dog Behavior and Motivation
2.5. Identifying Your Dog’s Natural Habits
2.6. Interpreting Doggy Language
2.7. Get Fluent in Dog
2.1.Hereditary Traits and Ancestry
Humans and dogs have lived side by side for centuries, and so it can be easy to forget that dogs were not always our domesticated best friends and helpers. Dogs once lived in the wild, and were not born instinctually friendly to humans. Through experience, they’ve learned that it is safe to be among us. This is a key factor when approaching training. Your dog may feel like part of the family, but despite their sweet and loving disposition, they are not a mini, fluffy human. He is an animal closely related to the wolf, and your teaching of good manners has to compete with thousands of years worth of hereditary behaviors and natural tendencies coursing through his veins. No wonder training can be so difficult!
When your dog was first born, it was afraid of humans – this is his inherited biological response. Animals have a default setting when it comes to humans, and it’s almost always “fear”. However, they can unlearn this response through careful conditioning. When a puppy is shown kindness, it is given food and comfort, and feels happy and safe, they will begin to trust their human and feel comfortable around people.
This is critical in establishing your own attitude towards training and your dog in general. You can’t view your dog’s bad behaviors or inability to do as you command as a purposeful rebellion. You are not competing with your dog, you are competing with his biology. As you will learn, your dog has inherited social, behavior, and emotional traits from his ancestors, and many of these cannot be altered. Instead, you’ll have to devise strategies that allow your dog to still be a dog, while also respecting the rules of your home.
Difference Between Learned and Inherited Traits
When you can separate your dog’s inherited traits from his learned behaviors, you’ll have a much easier time identifying whether your dog is acting out, or simply being a normal dog. So what’s the difference? Think of it as nature versus nurture. Humans are not born with knowledge, but they are born with predispositions, characteristics, and desires – such as desire to find a mate and reproduce. But through experience, we learn things about ourselves and the world – from a primitive standpoint we learn that when we touch something sharp, it hurts, so in future we are careful around sharp things. As different as dogs are from humans, they are shaped in the same way.
As you will see, there are certain dog behaviors that are considered “natural” – these are the behaviors that dogs have inherited.
- There are behaviors rooted in biology, where the mind has little control over the body, i.e. wanting to mate, being in heat, “spraying”, etc., which many humans find rude or distateful, but a dog has no control over them.
- There are instinctual behaviors such as marking territory, protecting and guarding, excessive sniffing, etc. which dogs do as an instinctual response, without even thinking about it. Similar to how we scratch when something is itchy, or we jump back when something has scared us.
- There are also emotional and social behaviors that are rooted in instinct, such as the desire to live in harmony with a family or pack, the desire to please and serve, the duty of protection. These are all examples of instinctive emotion that dictate behaviors, i.e. protective duty may manifest in apprehension of strangers, which may result in growling or barking at unknown humans. The behaviors themselves can be undesirable, but they are coming from a place of instinct.
You will learn more about what constitutes “normal” dog behavior later in this module.
Genetic Influence and Breed Characteristics
Another factor to consider with dogs, is that unlike many other animals, there are hundreds of breeds within the speceis, and each one has unique physical, behavioral, social, and emotional characteristics. How you approach training with a dalmation will be different than how you’d approach training with a St. Bernard. There are some breeds who are more stubborn and independent, and will have a hard time taking orders ( yes, Chow Chows, we’re looking at you!), whereas others are VERY willing to please (Labs and Golden Retrievers are popular for a reason).
In the wild, dogs would choose mates according to their natural instincts, not because of a docile nature, particular shade of fur, and cute eyes. They have widely spread the gene pool, retained independence, and succumbed to the survival of the fittest rule in nature. This ensured their health and the ability to evolve and adapt successfully to their environment.
Human intervention has changed all of that. For practical and emotional reasons, over the centuries, we have carefully chosen the kind of dogs with the type of characteristics that we want more of – sizes, natures, shapes, attractive looks, colors – and manipulated their breeding among these pools. As it became apparent that continual interbreeding of a particular type of dog weakened the gene pool, and created inherent lines of disease; cross breeding became popular.
How Breed Characteristics Shape Behavior
When breeding was started by kennel clubs around 150 years ago, the classifications reflected how dogs were integrated into human society:
|Hounds||bred to hunt using scent or sight.||Beagle, Bloodhound, Greyhound, Irish Wolfhound|
|Herding dogs||bred to herd livestock on farms||Sheepdog, German Shepherd, Collie, Corgi|
|Gun/Sport dogs||trained to find and retrieve game/field activities||Labrador Retriever, Pointer, Spaniel, Weimaraner|
|Working dogs||bred to guard, protect, and do a specific job||Husky, Akita, Boxer, Great Dane, Rottweiler|
|Terriers||bred to hunt for vermin.||Bull Terrier, Schnauzer, Jack Russell Terrier|
|Toy dogs||bred for a convenient size||Chihuahua, Maltese, Pomeranian, Pug, Havanese|
|Utilitarian dogs||A mix of non-sporting breeds||Chow Chow, Bulldog, Boston Terrier, Dalmation|
|Fighting dogs||Some dog breeds were bred for dog fighting and combat. As these practices are now viewed as barbaric, they have since been redistributed into other groups.|
This means that each classification focused on developing specific characteristics and behaviors. Herding dogs, for example, are bred with intelligence, energy, stamina, protectiveness, and agility in mind. A herding breed wants to work, and they want to be challenged. When a herding dog is taken from its natural environment they need to fill that sense of purpose, either with rigorous training, activities, or intelligence tasks. Without it, they will become bored, which leads to frustration, which results in destruction and bad behavior.
A Border Collie can be taken from farm to city house, so long as they are given an opportunity to fulfil their natural desires. This is where you have to get crative as an owner. Many urban dogs participate in agility training, sports, service jobs, and obedience classes to satisfy their natural urges.
So, are you starting to see why your dog’s bad manners sometimes can’t be helped?
2.2 How Humans Shape Dog Development
As we hope you’re learning, there can be many different causes for your dog’s bad behavior, and many reasons as to why your dog can’t can’t get the hanf of things. But have you considered your own role? This time we’re not referring to you as an owner, teacher, and leader, but rather as an enabler. You may have your doggy pal’s best intentions at heart, but you could be interfering with this progress and actually impeding the training. Let’s take a look.
Anthropomorphism means to transfer human characteristics, emotions, behavior, and motivation to non-human creatures, especially to our pets. It is probable that much of the challenging behavior our pets exhibit is related to our anthropomorphism, giving rise to more focus on animal psychology.
Without an emotional bond, we would only use pets to serve a purpose or function – such as guarding our property or keeping vermin away. Yet, this emotional bond can lead to issues. Many owners treat their dogs like little humans, and we’ve already said this is a no-no. It sounds like stating the obvious, but let’s breakdown exactly why a doting owner can be detrimental to their dog’s postive development.
The Dangers of Anthropomorphism
Why do dog owners treat their pets like people? There could be a correlation between the fact that the number of children per household in the western world is reducing, and the number of pets is increasing. Pet owners affectionately refer to themselves as moms and dads, which many see as endearing and a sign of love, but it really makes things more confusing. When we share such a deep emotional space with animals, it is easy to understand how some blurring occurs between our objective and logical understanding of how an animal operates, and what we project onto them.
Owners who treat a dog like a person might project a sense of responsibility that the dog is incapable of understanding. For example, punishing the dog when they ‘know they have done something wrong.’ They may have no idea it is wrong, but they’ll still cower because they sense your displeasure. We might see a response in a dog that we attribute to a human emotion, but it may be an example of how dogs imitate us.
Mostly, anthropomorphism involves interpreting animals’ actions, expressions, and motivations with more depth than they are capable of feeling. Dogs are good at blending happily into human lives. It is easy to understand why we believe their motivations and feelings are the same as ours.
In a Swiss study, 64 dog owners were shown pictures and video clips of dogs interacting with other dogs and humans. Non dog owners were shown the same visuals. Both groups correctly identified dogs’ facial expressions with things like fear and curiosity. However, the dog owners also attributed feelings like anger and jealousy that the non dog owners did not.
As much as we love them, pets are not human. They are animals and only capable of feeling and thinking like an animal of their species. It creates a much more harmonious environment for humans and pets when we understand this.
These points illustrate how you can develop a healthy, loving human/animal relationship with your pet:
|From a pets point of view, when they arrive at your home they become a member of your pack (rather than family). They will be instinctively working out who holds what place in the pecking order of their new pack.|
|Naturally, you want to establish yourself as the leader. If you give constant affection without any limits or rules, a dog will interpret this as him being equal to you, and could lead to trouble.|
|Animals need boundaries and limitations. They need to know first of all that you are in charge, and you make the rules. Secondly, to know how they must behave in order to be accepted in the pack. This must always be done with ‘loving guidance’.|
|Feeding time is an important signal to animals as to who is ahead of them in the pack hierarchy. Those who eat first are at the top – never feed your animal ahead of yourself or your family. Wait until you have had at least some food before feeding them.|
|Animals are equipped with the ability to deal independently with situations and stresses. If you believe your dog is anxious and you comfort him; you deny him the ability to develop resilience so he is able to withstand the next similar situation. He gets the message that he needs you to make it alright, and stays anxious. By sharing the fear, he also sees you as a weak pack leader – not good.|
What is important to remember is that interpreting your pet’s behavior or reactions through a human lens instead of an animal lens can lead to misinterpretation of what is really going on. Small issues can turn into ongoing ones, and challenging behavior can escalate. We hope that by the end of this course you will have a better understanding of your pet and can enjoy a truly loving bond that benefits both of you.
The level of intelligence and ability to learn among dogs is a constant fascination to dog lovers, owners, and those who work with dogs. Some researchers believe that the intelligence of dogs has co-evolved with humans due to the long history of sharing our lives.
Dogs’ intelligence may be divided into three areas:
- Learning ability
- Problem solving ability
- Communication intelligence
Dogs have inherited flexible brains from their ancestors – in other words, they have an innate ability to learn new things and add to their store of knowledge about the world. They are adaptable to their environments. They add learning from experiences to their overall understanding of the world. If they come across someone who treats them badly, they will learn wariness. Being surrounded with positive experiences means they learn trust. Dogs are intelligent enough to recognize positive outcomes even when they aren’t as obvious as earning a treat. They can sense when you are pleased with them, and they can correlate praise, play, walks, etc. with good behavior so long as they are rewarded immediately.
This is the ability to mentally come up with a solution to a problem. This is less developed in dogs and can often be a challenge. Levels of problem solving abilities vary among different breeds, e.g the Border Collie is known for their well-developed problem solving abilities, But, when we think of solving problems not in human terms but in dog terms, dogs have some exceptional abilities. For example, dogs have the natural ability to map large territories in their mind. This is why some dogs can find their way home over long and complicated terrain after being stranded or lost. When dogs patrol, investigate and mark their territory, they’re instinctually exercising their mental mapping abilitiy to keep it sharp and focused.
Gun-dogs such as Labradors are chosen because they have shown an excellent capacity for intelligent communication with owners. Dogs largely communicate through body language and scent. Some dogs like this breed show an unusual willingness and ability to respond to vocal commands from people. They have long attention spans and can show persistence by concentrating on a task for long periods.
2.3 Understanding a Dog’s Learning Process
Dogs often work things out on the basis of association, rather than cognitively working it out through problem solving. This is part of the learning ability we spoke about earlier. Associative learning happens when two previously unconnected events become connected in the pets’ mind. If they hear the sound of a bowl being placed on a floor then food appears. If you bring their leash then they will get to go on a walk. If they hear the sound of a doorbell then another person will come in.
This association technique can also work with negative experiences. A dog that was hurt in a certain spot will probably want to avoid that particular area. It is used to teach dogs to remain inside a boundary by creating an aversion. Rather than punish, aversion techniques teach dogs not to perform an action based on their own learning experience. You’ll be learning about some of these methods in later modules.
For associated learning to work, the two associated experiences must happen within seconds of each other. If you try to let a dog know your displeasure for certain behavior, you are wasting your time unless you are on the spot at the time they perform the offending act. If you come home to chewed shoes and socks, DO NOT attempt to discipline your dog. They will have no idea why you are upset or what they did wrong, as they were gnawing on those loafers hours ago, and have already forgotten about them. They will not be able to connect your reaction to their action. Instead, they will associate you coming home with anger, and so when they hear your key turn or your footsteps, they may retreat or become anxious. Not healthy.
This is why most experts agree that you should only discipline your dog when you catch them in the act.
How to Apply Dog Learning to Training
We know that a dog is likely to repeat actions that lead to a reward, based on their strong desire to please, and their ability to recognize positive outcomes. If you can encourage your dog to link an action with a reward, then you’ll have a strong training motivator (because dogs learn by association ; action = reward).
For example, if a dog knows everytime he uses the toilet spot in the yard he gets a great reward, then he’ll want to save up his bodily functions and ‘spend’ themoutdoors in exchange for a treat. This is the theory on which potty training is based. Likewise, this principle can be adapted to teach a dog practically anything from sit, stay, and recall, to fancy dance routines. The trick is to have the dog link the action to the reward, which is where a clicker training method is useful (more on that later).
Now, just to drive this point home, let’s pretend that instead of getting a treat for going in the right spot in the yard, the dog is punished for going in the house. So, the dog does his business, and half an hour later you find it and attempt to discipline him by yelling, restraining him, and leading him to the spot and making him sniff it. So, your dog doesn’t understand what you’re raving about because he is not associating your outburst with his potty mishap. If you do try to correct him by taking him outside, he learns that the chain of events is that you have an outburst, and then he gets outside time. Which is understandably, confusing, and can lead to a host of other problems.
Always, ALWAYS bear in mind that your dog learns by association. Keep this in mind next time you’re tempted to act on impulse, and take a step back to think about how your reaction is going to affect his training in the long-term.
2.4 Normal Dog Behavior and Motivation
Dogs are individuals, and it’s worthwhile to note that they have distinct personalities that may not fit into their “normal” breed characteristics. A German Shepherd may have shedded their traditional stoicism and regal bearing for a goofball personality depending on their upbringing and social environment. But, even accounting for variances due to personality and individual experience, there are some behaviors that can be classified as “normal” among all dogs. These are the hereditary and inherited traits that we referred to earlier.
When evaluating a dog’s behavior to determine its origin or cause, it’s a good idea to compare it to his breed characteristics, and also to his developmental stage. If he is a younger dog especially, it will make a difference, as certain behaviors are common at specific stages of development.
Here’s a look at an overview of normal dog behavior, emotional needs, and motivations throughout their lifecycle.
When puppies are born, they rely almost totally on their senses of touch, taste, and smell for the first two weeks. This is referred to as the neonatal period. They have a strong instinct to stay exactly where they are – with their mother and the litter. That is where a large amount of vital, survival learning is done.
Socialization, the next stage in a puppy’s life, is between three and eleven weeks old. It is the point at which the basic learning of socialization with other dogs, and humans is largely formed for the remainder of their life. The characteristics of the mother are slotted into the ‘parenting’ development and learning capacity, and will stay ingrained for life. It will provide information for the puppy on a myriad of things concerning social engagement within its species.
Because dogs clearly have a capacity for multiple socialization categories, people are also able to ‘program’ a social response protocol at this time. It is also possible later but does not happen as easily or quickly. In a way, we act as a substitute parent/teacher. This is less of an influence up to about 6-8 weeks old but when weaning occurs around this time that influence becomes stronger.
From then on the attachment to humans continues to grow stronger, and is reinforced every day through feeding, playing, training, and rewarding. Similarly, attachment to their siblings, and lessons learned from their litter is strongest during the first 12 weeks while they live in close proximity. After that, a dog’s opportunity to interact with and reinforce attachments to other dogs is vastly outweighed by interaction with people.
At weaning age, bitches will start to leave puppies for longer periods of time. It is beneficial to allow them to live together until puppies are 12 weeks old. If your breeder arranges for you to pick up a puppy before this time, insist on waiting. The learning gained and social skills developed are invaluable. The puppies learn how to send and receive signals. Through play, they know the boundaries around biting and wrestling without inflicting harm. They learn coordination and generally how to be a grown up dog.
Between 5 and 7 weeks, a puppy gets very inquisitive and is drawn to explore their immediate environment, venturing further as they grow. Being in a place where their experiences are positive is a big advantage. By now, all of their senses are available though they will sharpen considerably as they develop. From 7 to 9 weeks old, physical development is noticeable. Although it is early for many pups, house training can start at this time.
Once curious instinct and physical mobility have developed, the puppy learns to be independent of its mother and litter. They want to explore new environments, and know that they can return back to safety at any time. Reactions and social skills are being refined while they learn what to be cautious of. Puppies become more responsive to people and other dogs. While the formative learning is done up to 12 weeks, they will go on being receptive to new experiences and learning well into adulthood.
This is big play time with other dogs or with children and adults. Puppies may show signs of dominance, submission or just a willingness to please and integrate. Teething happens – loss of tiny baby teeth in favor of bigger, stronger ones. Chewing is plentiful. Provide plenty of safe things to chew and limit access to anything you would like to keep free from mangling!
This is adolescence for a dog. They will start to be more assertive. Chewing can continue through this time. Sexual behavior may also become obvious depending on whether they are spayed or neutered. For males, this includes territory marking, mounting, and aggression. For females, this includes going into heat when she attracts the attention of male dogs from far and wide.
As their lifespan is much shorter than ours, we are likely to see a dog through their full life-cycle. Ageing differs between breeds. Smaller breeds tend to live longer and age slower. Whereas, large breeds age more quickly and live shorter lives. Once a dog reaches around 8 years of age, they are considered an older dog.
Naturally, older dogs become less active, sleep more, and play less. Their need for exercise diminishes and often health issues can become an issue. Their senses can start to be less efficient including sight, hearing, and smell. Temperaments can also change. Some dogs turn into cuddly balls of fur wanting attention, affection, and stroking as often as they can. Others may become less sociable, more irritable, and less tolerant. Sometimes, this can be due to painful joint problems or fearfulness.
Keep up a routine of regular walking, even if it is reduced, some playtime, and giving nutritious food to help your dog through aging. Try to avoid any big changes in the dog’s life or environment as much as possible because these can be stressful or confusing to an older dog.
2.5 Identifying Your Dog’s Natural Habits
Before we try to correct your dog’s bad behaviors, let’s take a look at what may be causing them. When you can differentiate between natural behaviors and “acting out”, you’ll know how to react.
When it comes to natural behaviors, you don’t want to completely eliminate them, as you’ll be going against your dog’s nature. The result may be that he becomes frustrated, stressed out, and confused. It’s also not a sustainable solution, as your dog will likely find some way to revert back to the behavior. Instead, you want to find a way to redirect the motivation behind the behavior, or solve the problem so your dog won’t feel that he has to take matters into his own paws. As you will see, many of these behaviors sound like annoyances, until you understand the reasons behind them.
The main reason dogs lick is to groom themselves. They learned this early in their lives when their mother licked them clean after birth to stimulate the breathing process, and on occasions throughout puppy-hood. They also lick to clean wounds.
In packs, subordinate dogs tend to lick the more dominant dogs to groom them.
As puppies are nearing weaning age they start to learn to eat solid food as well as drink milk. They lick their mother’s mouth, and sometimes the father’s as a signal they want them to regurgitate food to share with them. Scientists believe this is behind their tendency to go on trying to lick people’s mouths throughout their life. It is a survival instinct they learned early.
It is difficult to say definitively, but most owners will testify to knowing their dogs licking is a sign of affection, and it is very likely that it is. Dogs lick their owners and familiar people excitedly when they have not seen them for a while.
Dogs also gather a lot of information by licking, much like through scent. This could be another reason they want to lick. Undoubtedly, the taste of salt and sebum secreted through our skin’s hair follicles is another big draw to licking bare human skin. As many patient owners experience a good licking all over legs, arms, and any exposed skin. Licking releases endorphins in dogs, the feel-good biochemical, so it is pleasurable, and comforting.
There are a few reasons your dog likes to dig, and all of them stem from a natural instinctual urge:
- Hoarding food by burying it is easy to explain. Even though domesticated dogs have a guaranteed supply of food, dog instinct does not know that. If a dog has more than he needs at any time; he could decide to stash some for leaner times. They are particularly inclined to hoard bones.
- If a dog is chained outside or kept in a small pen, he may dig to escape the confined space. Certain breeds do not do well in confined spaces, and will always try to tunnel out or jump fences. It may also be that a small animal has caught his attention, and he’s trying to get to the other side of his prison to exercise his natural prey drive.
- Some dogs, may also be acting on their instinctual need to make a den. If they have a dog house or area in the yard, they may not feel it offers them sufficient protection from elements, predators, or any perceived dangers.
- If dogs are left out in the heat, they may look for ways to cool down. The earth beneath the grass is likely cool, moist and very refreshing on a dog’s belly. He may be trying to dig himself some shade.
- If he’s not challenged or stimulated, he may dog out of boredom.
Jumping and Sniffing
We put these together as they are related behaviors. When dogs meet, they greet and get information about each other by sniffing – first noses, then under tails. They offer this facility to each other easily in almost all cases. It is natural, normal, and unstoppable in the dog world.
When it comes to greeting and looking for information from humans, they naturally are inclined to do the same – try to sniff your nose and your crotch. This behavior is not very appealing to humans. First of all, we do not want them to do this. Secondly, jumping up to reach a person’s face is very unacceptable to most people and they are in danger of knocking over children, the elderly, and smaller people.
Dogs often jump on people as an expression of excitement, greeting, and affection. Even if you are ok with it, it is best to train your dog not to jump in order to be courteous to others.
Again, it is a perfectly natural, necessary instinct, and stage of development. It is only a problem because they live in human environments. Puppies start chewing at around 4 months and can go through more extreme chewing between 6 and 12 months. Like babies, it is mostly due to soothing sore and annoying gums. It also helps to strengthen growing teeth.
Puppies cannot distinguish between what they are allowed to chew on and what they are not. They would never have limits on this in a purely dog world so it is up to you to put boundaries in place. Limit your canine to a certain area where they cannot get at precious things like expensive table legs. Give plenty of toys or things that are safe, and satisfying to chew. Do not give things that resemble stuff you do not want to end up between their jaws – like an old shoe. They will naturally think shoes are fair game and you may find a new expensive pair has been given the chewed-up look.
If you cannot or do not want to restrict your dog from everything that is a likely target for chewing then look for sprays that are designed to dispense an offensive taste on them. Check the ingredients, though and avoid nasty ones.
Many dogs eat grass when out on their walks even though they are largely carnivores. Scientists believe the reasons for this are to relieve tummy symptoms, and to get natural roughage into their diets.
Rolling in Feces
This is one of the most unpleasant of dogs’ instincts. They may do this in order to wear the scent of a possible predator, and disguise their own. Moreover, they may do it to wear the scent of an object of prey so they can get closer to them without being recognized. It is also a way to take back information to the family group or pack about a predator or prey.
It could also be because we like dogs to smell nice and clean and have developed a trend of using perfumed products for our sake; dogs do not like these smells. To them, they are just nasty chemical smells. (They are right about the nasty chemical bit). Therefore, they may be trying to get rid of this invasion of their olfactory space by disguising it with a much more acceptable smell to them of a carcass or feces.
2.6 Interpreting Doggy Language
Dogs have an elaborate set of signals they use to communicate with one another. Their most important method of communication by far is body language.
Small details and gestures that you may barely notice can be significant in dog language. Facial gestures, general posture, position of the feet, tail position and action, the lie of the back, placement of the head, expression of eyes, and the lie of the fur can tell other dogs, and people what message the dog is giving. As well as reading the dog’s body language, it helps to interpret the signals by placing them in context – in other words to also read the situation he is in, and what is happening around him.
A dog’s overall posture is a good indicator of their general level of confidence. If a dog is worried about a situation, or how it may turn out, they will tend to keep their body low to the ground in an effort to signal that they are non-threatening. As soon as the worry passes or the situation reveals itself to be innocuous, their posture will return to normal. A confident dog holds themselves tall.
The tail position also indicates how the dog is feeling. Generally, the lower the tail is sitting, the less confident the dog. Dogs that are retreating from a confrontational or threatening situation will normally tuck their tails between the hind legs. Moreover, a relaxed tail position varies so much from breed to breed that you will need to be familiar with what normal is for your dog so you can read when it varies from this.
For example, a Pug’s tail sits upright and curls in a circle while a Greyhound’s naturally sits quite low.
It is when the tail changes position that it signals something specific. Here are a few general interpretations:
- An upright tail with a wagging tip indicates interest.
- When a tail is being wagged in a relaxed way from side to side involving movement of the whole hind quarters it indicates excitement, a desire to play, or both.
- A slower, more exaggerated version of this wagging, more like swishing can indicate an intention for aggression, or a preparation for it.
A stiff, straight back can indicate a low level of fear, anticipation, and anxiety. A rounded back may indicate that your dog is unsure – the hind legs will look like they are straining forwards while the brakes are on the front paws.
The muscles at the base of the ear are what do the talking.
- Ears pricked forwards suggest alertness and interest.
- Ears pulled back indicate anxiety.
If they are pulled back, and also flattened this indicates fear and will probably be followed by an attempt to escape the situation.
Reading a Dog’s Posture
As you get to know your dog, you will recognize the combination of body positions and gestures that signify different dispositions. Here are some stances and what they signify:
This is a clear signal to other dogs and people that a dog is inviting play. The front legs are resting on the ground, the bottom and tail high in the air. At any sign they might be joined in some fun, the tail will begin to wag. The ears are up and forwards, the jaw is often open, and the eyes are relaxed and eager. They may raise a paw at the other dog or at a human’s leg and jump forward in a non-threatening way, and then run to tempt a chase.
If the play bow did not work, a dog might try a variety of other nudges towards play – bumping, nosing, barking, nipping, and pawing. The desire for play with either their owners or other dogs varies depending on the type of dog, and personality. Some show a much stronger desire for human interaction, and some just want to stick to their own species. The strong desire to interact in this way with people shows the strength of the bond between man and dog.
Playing often takes the form of chasing. It may include non-threatening mounting, wrestling, and tumbling. High pitched barking may accompany high excitement.
A fearful dog may initially freeze. The body posture will be low, the eyes round and wide, mouth closed, and the fur on the hind quarters and shoulders might stand on end. The ears will be reaching forward initially and then may rotate backwards and down. They might move backwards or try to escape. If they cannot escape, they may turn their head sideways, away from the direction of what is feared. The dog may bark in alarm or lie down with a lowered head that is turned away. Some fearful dogs will try to defend by showing aggression, especially if cornered.
When a dog feels threatened, they will pin their ears back, the lips will pull back into a snarl, and they will stare at the threat. The dog may turn their head to the side but keep the stare fixed, showing the whites of their eyes. Their body posture at this point will probably be low and more defensive than aggressive. They could snap to give a signal of the potential for more aggressive behavior. If it is responded to with direct eye contact or growling; it is likely to turn into a fight.
Ready to Attack
This is a more confident stance. The dog stands tall and as the threat approaches leans forward and raises their tail. If the potential for aggression escalates, their fur will stand on end over the back and shoulders. The lips will pull back into a snarl and they will start to growl as they continue to lean forward with a broad stance of the hind legs. The tail might be wagging quickly but stiffly, and remains raised. The dog may try to put their front paws on the other dog. If this is responded to submissively, it will not go any further.
2.7 Get Fluent in Dog
Dogs hearing is approximately four times more sensitive than humans. They can hear much higher frequencies that we can, and they can distinguish between similar sounds. This could be, for example, to allow them to detect small prey. It is worth remembering how sensitive this sense is for them and to consider how it might affect them when they are surrounded by loud or shrill noises.
As dogs have such sensitive, tuned-in hearing, their sounds are a good way of communicating with others in their social world. Different vocalizations must have significant meaning, a lot of which we may never understand. In the wild, wolves howl but rarely bark. So, habitual barking seems to be a result of domestication and the relationship with humans.
One thing we know about barking is that it happens as a response to a change your dog detects. Often, it is in response to a sound we cannot hear. In these instances, dogs will often look to their owners to measure their response. As if to say, “So what are we going to do about that?” with perked up ears. It seems they are looking for direction as to how to respond, and a reassuring voice allows them to come out of alert mode. Sometimes, it is in response to a more alarming sound, and incessant barking will ensue. This type seems to be predominantly associated with protecting territory.
It can be difficult to stop incessant barking. If there is no apparent reason, it could be due to boredom. Try to make sure your dog has enough exercise and stimulation, especially before you go out. A dog whose needs are fully satisfied is less likely to act out of boredom.
Interpreting Barks, Howls, and Yelps
|Grunting||Puppies grunt in the company of each other, and adult dogs can too. It is often a way of claiming space.|
|Whining||Dogs whine when they are feeling fearful or in pain. It can also be a sign of submission or to get attention from owners. Excited whining may happen upon meeting a loved one they have not seen for a while.|
|Yelping||Usually indicates a frightened, distressed, or injured dog.|
|Growling||Though some growling can be playful, most growling indicates the guarding of food, possessions or territory, and can also signal aggression. Putting it together with other body language and situations will help you distinguish.|
|Howling||Dogs in domestication do not often howl. It may happen when their sensitive ears are subjected to high pitched sounds like in some music. Some sensitive dogs howl when left alone.|
|High-Pitched Barking||Indicates fear or anxiety.|
|High-Pitched Intermittent Yelps||Playful expressions of excitement.|
|Low-Pitched Barks Close Together||Signs of aggression.|