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Reading Canine Body Language: Part 1

In the human world, 93% of all communication is non-verbal, which means body language and vocal inflection. People listen and respond to only 7% of what is ACTUALLY said. In the animal world it is no different, except that there are no dialects; there is only energy and body language. Body language and the communication meanings behind the sounds that are made are extremely important. You cannot put one meaning above the other without taking all of it into context, just as humans cannot accurately receive a message without all of the parts being considered.

There is something to be said about how simply dogs interact with each other; it is another about how humans interact with EVERYTHING around them and make it complicated. This is Part 1 of a two part series on what Canine Body Language is, not as we humans wish to believe it to be.

Recently I was walking Koa in Home Depot and talking about dogs with one of their associates when a couple walked up and asked, “Does he bite?” Of course, the very truthful answer is that ALL dogs bite, it’s all about WHEN not IF. As I started to smile before I could answer that he does not, the associate handled it for me by answering, “Do you think he’d have a dog that big in here if he DID bite?”

I appreciate people asking if they can pet Koa before they do (although I don’t require that) because they should know if a dog is a problem if they do not know the dog. However, I trust Koa 110% around everyone – people, children, dogs – because we have, and still do, put in the work to make that a reality. When a dog barks or wags its tail is it aggressive? Happy? Anxious? Unsure? Warning you about an outside danger? Inviting another dog to play? Or communicating to another dog to quit goofing around?

Sometimes we can tell by the pitch and volume what message a human is trying to send; dogs are no different. However, humans put human emotions in the meaning of what animals do. When a dog wags their tail, does that mean they are not a threat and mean you no harm, or do you just wish that is the reason they’re staring at you and wagging their tail because you REALLY want to pet that dog? (By the way, the answer is he/she could absolutely be a threat – it has to be taken into context.)

Please remember that all behaviors can quickly change and that sometimes one behavior leads to another, which is why it is important to stop unwanted behaviors BEFORE they get out of control. However, to do that, we have to know what we are looking at. Ultimately, we want our dogs to have a measure of self-control so that we can monitor but not have to control their behaviors 100% of the time with people and other dogs.

As you can see from the graphic accompanying this post, a few behaviors pull at our heartstrings – anxious/nervous, and frightened. The WORST thing you can do with dogs exhibiting these behaviors is to give affection (“It’s okay, Barfy, don’t be scared.”). The dog sees this as acceptance of this behavior when they are really saying that they are unsure and need leadership. If it doesn’t come their way they will react out of indecision; this usually means trying to pet the dog when it is not the right time, or thinking that the dog is being stubborn and “acting like a baby” (yes, I have read and seen this with my own eyes!). Which is a great way to get bitten, and then we mislabel the dog “aggressive” when it was humans who were ignorant and disrespectful of the dog’s confusion.

Another misunderstood behavior is alert (mistaken for interested) and dominance (misread by thinking they are playful). We may see these behaviors as one activity when in reality it is many activities rolled into one. Interested is fine but it can go to dominant or aggressive very quickly, so this attitude has to be monitored and controlled.

Probably the most misunderstood is the difference between playful and aggressive. Because dogs do not use English for their verbal language skills, many people hear dogs barking and moving quickly as aggression, and vice versa (not recognizing aggression and believing that the dog is playing). So what is the difference? Aggression is a more targeted stance and body movement, where being playful or inviting another dog to play is bouncier and more carefree – and not targeted. A dog that barks and runs along a fence with another dog can be playing and inviting play. It is aggression when the dog cannot leave that behavior, begins barking in a very one-dimensional way, and charges at in an attempt to go through the fence. Being territorial does not mean aggressive; territorial is, “This is my place,” and aggressive is, “You are not a threat but I’d kill you if this fence wasn’t here.”

All domestic dogs were bred from wolves to be guards, security from physical threats, and hunters; companionship came with the rest of those jobs. If your dog is too territorial and aggressive they need more exercise (and do not say, “But I have a BIG backyard,” because that is not a challenge to them) and more boundaries BEFORE they exhibit the unwanted behaviors. In other words, they need a job. Respect the Animal, Dog, Breed in your companion so that they can be Name last. Unless you’ve named them Trouble, in which case this makes my point about humans…

Part 2 will discuss how to practice corrections in a way that won’t take all day and will create the type of relationship you want your dog to have with the outside world. Until then, become a reader – of Canine Body Language!

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