By Roohi Kulkarni Kale*
Dogs and humans share a wonderful relationship even though we don’t communicate in the same way. While humans depend more on verbal communication and give subtle cues through body language, dogs actually communicate more through their body language and truly vocalize only when needed. It is important that we read our dog’s movements including ears, eyes, tail etc. together to understand what he is trying to tell us with particular behaviours discussed here.
Who can resist the cute big eyes our pooches make when they look at us! Dogs have evolved with facial muscles that help them to make their eyes look round, sad, and innocent! So your pooch really does know that his ‘puppy eyes’ are actually getting the desired result that is attention from their human and sometimes a treat! So next time you are eating a slice of pizza, know that your pooch is actually trying to manipulate you and isn’t really sad.
Constantly Jumping on You:
Your pooch may jump to greet you when you come home just to get as close to you as possible. But if he is jumping on you constantly during the day then it generally is an invitation to play. We try to stop the jumping by pushing him away but in doing so jumping is reinforced as in our dog’s mind, when we push it’s confirmed that you want to play. A better solution is to turn your back to him when he jumps and teach him a more acceptable behaviour like sitting down to greet or before play.
This is the most obvious form of communication of dogs that humans know of! However there are various types of barks that sound different and are used to communicate different things by dogs. The most common bark we see in modern household is the attention seeking bark, which is constant, irritating, and surely does the job of giving the dog what he wanted in first place, which is attention! Then we have the watch dog bark, which is loud and alert barking generally at the door, compound or at something outside. It is used to tell anyone outside that this is the dog’s territory and to tell us inside to beware. Next we have the excitement barking, which is generally accompanied by jumping around and a lot of movement. Stress barking is softer with periodic whining, frustration barking sounds like the dog is angry and determined, whereas frightened barking is high pitched. Listen to your dog’s different barks to understand what he is barking for and then only you can take care of reducing excessive barking with appropriate solutions.
Not all tail wags mean the dog is friendly! You have to see tail’s position and motion along with rest of the body. A happy and friendly tail will be held high or level with the body and moving in sweeping motions, sometimes, with their entire nether regions moving with the tail! A nervous or frightened dog will have a tail that is hanging low and may even be curled up underneath him. Such a dog’s tail will be stiff or twitching slightly, his ears will be pinned back and he will be crouching low. It’s not a good idea to engage with a dog showing signs of nervousness or to force him to face his fear. Giving him space to move away from the situation is best. It may come as a surprise to some that aggressive or unsure dogs also wag their tails! If threatened, a dog will raise his tail high and wag in fast twitching motions. He will also keep his ears erect and body as stiff as possible.
Though it can be a sign of sexual frustration in adolescent dogs, in many cases, dogs hump other dogs, humans or inanimate objects even when they want to show dominance or are simply over excited in a certain situation.
Lifting His Leg:
In most cases, this simply means that your pooch is marking his territory and is sending a message to other dogs. Leg lifting ensures that they can mark at their nose level so other dogs can sniff and get all the information about your pooch easily. So, if your pooch is marking you or your guests, he is hoping that the human will go out and spread his message to the outside world.
If your pooch licks your hands or feet often, they are showing submission and love or sometimes just getting a taste of something yummy! In the wild, a mother dog regurgitates semi-digested food when her puppies lick her on the mouth! It is not a great idea to let your pooch lick your mouth if you aren’t sure of where his mouth has been.
A dog with raised hackles is generally associated with aggression. However there is no need to be scared if your pet has raised hackles in a situation since it could merely mean that he is excited or frightened and not being aggressive. Raised hackles simply mean arousal. You must read rest of the body language to understand what your dog is thinking at that time to know if it is an aggressive arousal or is it only a play arousal.
While these behaviours are very obvious to humans, we sometimes miss the subtle cues from our dogs, which show that he is stressed out.
When do we cause stress in our dogs? Tension in the household like fights, exams, and sickness, not just stress us but our dogs as well. Dogs associate simple human gestures like hugging and leaning over as a sign of dominance. Unless you habituate your pooch for these behaviours from a very early age, it is a good idea to read his body language to see whether he is enjoying it or not. On a daily basis, being yelled at, constant tugging on the leash or giving commands angrily are huge stressors that keep on stacking every day. In all these scenarios, do try to read the dog’s entire body language so we don’t end up causing long-term stress in our pooches. While mild stress is fine for dogs, long-term extreme stress may lead to him becoming nervous, depressed or sometimes aggressive, hiding, not eating and playing, pacing up and down, excessively barking or even self-mutilating, and reacting to sights and sounds he was previously ok with.
To cope with short term stress dogs show various displacement behaviours that may be repetitive in nature such as excessive panting when your dog hasn’t been active or isn’t feeling hot, sniffing at nothing in particular with eyes looking around, repeated lips and nose licking when your dog hasn’t eaten anything, excessive yawning, excessive barking, pinned back ears, drooping shoulders, head hanging low, to name just a few.
Dogs try to cope with hyper-arousal caused by stress by being excessively destructive, trying to remove pent-up nervous energy. Your dog is desperately trying to tell you that he cannot cope with the situation. If you know that something is triggering stress in your dog, it is a good idea to remove him from the stressful situation rather than forcing him to confront his fears. For a long term solution, a balanced combination of training, mental and physical enrichment, and rest helps to keep your dog satisfied.
How do we know if our pooch is happy? If it is generally relaxed, has a ‘smiling’ face often with its tongue out, plays and eats happily, enjoys being pet and touched by you, then your dog is happy in general and loves you!
*She is a Certified Professional Canine Trainer & Behaviourist from Canines Can Care (India) & The Northern Centre for Canine Behaviour (UK) and also a dog rescuer and rehabilitator. She specializes in companion dog training, therapy dog work & aggression. With ‘Coach the Pooch’ dog training, her aim is to help pet owners build the best bond with their dogs through communication, compassion & commitment. You can find her at: Website: www.coachthepooch.com. Instagram & facebook: @coachthepooch.