All care givers, even those with happy well adjusted dogs, need to have a good understanding of canine body language to get the most out of their relationship with their dog.
Caregivers need to understand that the basic tenets of communication between canids is very different to the communication between humans. As primates we are very tactile, enjoy touching, face to face contact and rely heavily on language and our sense of vision. Dogs rely more heavily on their olfactory sense (both real smells and pheromone detection), their sense of hearing and greet one another with tail to nose. Many of our gestures are naturally threatening to dogs e.g. direct eye contact, hugging, baring teeth.
When we assume dogs understand our intentions and our language we do them great disservice.
Dogs have the cognitive power of about a four year child. They are capable of great learning, of many deep and powerful emotions, but there is no evidence supporting the idea that dogs feel guilt over chewing an expensive shoe instead of the old sneaker they are allowed to gnaw on.
When we believe dogs have operated out of spite or jealousy we mistakenly give dogs human emotions and feelings we cannot know they have.
It is much wiser to be an interpreter of body language to understand what your dog is feeling. The caregiver needs to read the entire dog. Do not just look at the tail. A wagging tail simply indicates arousal and does not necessarily indicate a happy dog. A happy dog tail wag is loose and low and the body appears relaxed and the face soft. Simply looking at one area of a dog’s body can lead to misinterpretation.
To be a successful reader of dog body language a caregiver should practice. Video your dog and watch it in slow motion to look for signs of stress. Early signs of stress in dogs include lip licking, yawning (when not tired), turning the head away, averting gaze, paw lifting. These are all signs the dog is trying to end the encounter and if ignored the dog may feel he needs to escalate his language to make himself heard.
Dogs who exhibit growling or snapping have risen high on the ladder of anxiety and have not had their distance increasing signals understood. The last thing someone in this situation should do is punish the communication. This is the time to take note of what is occurring and realise the dog is ill-equipped to be in this situation. Later, the dog can be helped to develop a different association with the situation, but for now the behaviour should be respected, and the dog given the space he/she needs.
There are many excellent articles that teach caregivers to read canine body language and caregivers need to study these to be able to help dogs with behaviour problems.
Have a look at the latest Animal Sense blog on Body language here:
Part 1 and 2 of Canine Body Language by Kristin Crestejo
the ladder of aggression by Kendal Shepherd…
Working with a veterinary behaviourist will teach you to be a skilled and empathic reader of your dog and their emotions.