MAY 2006


How often we wish that our dogs could speak to us. They do, only we don't always understand their language.

I recently came across a very interesting book: "How to Speak Dog" written by Stanley Coren. The whole book (all 350 pages) concentrates on the sounds, non-verbal (such as scent) and body language used by dogs to communicate with their human owners and other animals. I thought it might be interesting to give a short summary of the doggy language addressed in this book to interested humans - maybe it will help you to understand your canine companion a bit better.

This is what your dog's body language will look like under different circumstances:

Tail:  Down and relaxed.
Ears:  Up, but not forward (this includes floppy ears).
Head:  Held high.
Mouth:  Open slightly, tongue exposed.
Stance:  Loose, weight flat on feet.
These signals communicate a relaxed and reasonably content dog that is unconcerned and unthreatened by activities in its immediate environment.

Alert and Attentive:
Tail:  Horizontal, but not stiff or bristled. Tail may move slightly from side to side.
Ears:  Forward, may twitch as if trying to catch a sound.
Eyes:  Wide.
Nose:  Smooth.
Forehead:  Smooth.
Mouth:  Closed.
Stance:  Slight forward lean, standing tall on toes.
These signals communicate that there is something interesting in the dog's environment, the dog is taking notice of it and is in a state of alertness.

Dominance aggression (Offensive threat):
Tail:  Raised and bristled. Tail is stiff and may quiver or vibrate from side to side.
Hackles:  Raised.
Ears:  Forward and may be spread slightly to the side to form a V-shape.
Forehead:  May show vertical wrinkles.

Nose:  Wrinkled.
Lips:  Curled.
Teeth:  Are visible (often gums as well).
Mouth:  Open and C-shaped. Corner of mouth is forward.
Stance:  Stiff-legged, body leaning slightly forward.
These signals are given by a very confident and dominant dog, threatening aggression if it is challenged. This body language will also be accompanied by vocal language like growling.

Fear aggression (Defensive threat):
Tail:  Tucked between the legs with little or no movement.
Body:  Lowered.
Hackles:  Raised.
Ears:  Pulled back.
Eyes:  Pupils dilated.
Nose:  Wrinkled.
Lips:  Slightly curled, teeth may be slightly visible.
Mouth:  Corner of the mouth is pulled back.
These signals communicate that the dog is frightened, but not submissive and may attack if pressed. The body language is accompanied by growling. These signals are addressed directly to the individual who is threatening.

Very often humans confuse the offensive and defensive body language of their growling dog, thinking that the dog is growling because it is protecting them (the human) while in fact the non-verbal and body language of the dog indicates that it is frightened and will attack if it is pushed to that extent. Granted, if a dog growls at you, very few people will hang around to try to interpret the rest of the dog's body language. To many humans growling means trouble - forget about looking at the eyes, mouth shape, lips, tail and everything else!

Another issue that needs to be taken into account when reading the body language of your dog is the human interference for "beauty purposes" where the dog's tail is often docked or the ears are cropped for the sake of appearance. This may result in making it more difficult to interpret the dog's body language - not only between human and dog, but also between dogs themselves.

We have run out of space. Next month we will look at the body language for stress and anxiety, fear and submission, extreme fear and playfulness. In the meantime, if your dog growls or barks, start interpreting the body language as well - it might be an interesting exercise.