“Decoding Doggy Language”
Nonverbal communication accounts for 93% of the way dogs communicate. Plus, while many people assume a puppy “knows he was bad” when they’ve done something wrong, but the puppy is just reacting to our body language and tone. Here are a few tips on how to gauge what your pup is thinking:
- Acting Out/Bad Behavior: Dogs do whatever they can for a reward (food, toys, pets, or any type of attention), including things we may not appreciate, like chewing, barking, and going to the bathroom in the house. These activities are self-rewarding because pet parents are often quick to react to these behaviors, giving them instant gratification.
- Pet parents can help curb this behavior by replacing bad behavior with the behavior they do want. For example, if a puppy is chewing on a table leg, you can walk them away from the table leg and give them something that you want them to chew on, like a bone or toy.
- Tail wagging does not always mean the dog is happy: Typically a slow, stiff, side to side wag with the tail straight up is a sign of an alert dog, not an excited one. A tucked and wagging tail is a sign of nervousness and submission. Happy dogs will have their tail at a neutral level and will wag it quickly and loosely. The best tail is the “helicopter tail,” which is just like it sounds. This is when the pup wags its tail in a giant circle. That means they are very happy.
- Nipping and barking when at play: When at play, dogs often nip at each other’s faces, feet, and tails and make a lot of noise. While this might seem scary to new pet parents, this is all perfectly normal. Pups are social learners and often pick up behaviors from other dogs. This is also how they learn how to play appropriately, so it’s important that they get a chance to do so. When a dog grabs another’s muzzle or neck with his mouth, he is showing aggression. The only time an owner needs to remove their pups from a play situation is if a puppy is clearly scared: tail tucked, trying to get away, hide, or appears to be frantic or panicked.
- Deciphering between aggression and overstimulation: If a dog feels threatened, they will often try to flee the situation first, but if they can’t get away, they may growl, bare their teeth, bark, and standing up on their toes with their ears and tail raised to make themselves look bigger. Dilated pupils don’t necessarily mean “aggression;” they can also mean overstimulation, which is common in puppies and often seen before they pounce, even in play. Overstimulation, in the form of fear, anxiety, excitement, surprise or arousal, can also cause puppies to experience piloerection (the raising of the hair over their back and down to their tail – also known as hackles).
- Ears are the barometers of doggy mood: Different breeds adjust the shape of their ears, depending on their moods. If a dog’s ears are erect and facing forward, they are interested and/or possibly aggressive. When their ears flatten against their head, this means they feel fearful or submissive.
- Mouthing off: Generally, when a dog exposes his canine teeth, he is showing aggression or fear. When a dog pulls his lips back horizontally and shows more teeth in a “grin,” this is an appeasement gesture, as is when he administers a licking, lolling tongue.
Human Habits that Pets Dislike
There are many things that we, as humans, do to pets that they don’t enjoy, and this puts our pets and us at risk for stress and injury:
- Hugging: While we may think it’s sweet and comforting, pets often feel trapped and scared during hugs, particularly when humans pull pets into their faces.
- Waking them up: Who likes being jolted out of sleep? As dogs age, they can sleep more heavily, and can be startled and react poorly if woken up abruptly.
- Changing their routine: Dogs appreciate routine, and it’s difficult for them to have abrupt schedule changes like weekday vs. weekend schedule differences. Changes can cause them to stress and lead to behavior problems like chewing, barking, digging, or other destructive behaviors. Try to keep their schedules consistent: waking up at the same time to take them out, feeding them at the same times with the same diet, and keeping their exercise routine consistent. Routine helps humans out too!
- Inconsistent signals: Often humans don’t realize they are giving dogs mixed signals about appropriate behavior, and this confuses dogs. If you don’t want your dog to jump up on you, then you should never pet them when they jump up. Humans forget this and greet their dogs and pet them for jumping up when they get home from work, while they get mad and reprimand the dog at other times.
- Bringing new people or pets into the house and expecting them to love the newcomers right away: It can be scary to a dog to have strangers enter their household (their safe zone), so introductions should be done outside the house in neutral territory. Slow, calm introductions will help facilitate positive meet and greets! Follow the dog’s comfort level and don’t force any interactions.