This post was written with the input of NYC-based dog trainer Shelby Semel!
I’m willing to bet that you and your dog have come across another dog at some point in your life. Don’t you deny it. I’m also willing to bet that many of you pull your dog’s leash closer when a strange pup is approaching, or, on the flip-side, let your dog pull you over to say hello.
If this is the case, then please pause for a second. This is exactly why everyone needs to learn to read canine body language. For the love of dogs, if you ever want to feel confident—and want your dog to feel confident—in a new or unusual situation (like taking a walk in an area you’ve never been before), this is essential. I wouldn’t lie to you.
The thing is, years of working with pups under the watchful eye of a behaviorist taught me that you will never be able to predict your dog (and especially other dogs’) reactions under strange circumstances. The solution? Learn to speak their language, because “No! Stop! Wait!” won’t help anyone if something goes awry. The key is to prevent undesirable behaviors from occurring in the first place and avoiding behaviors that will make your dog think there’s reason to be nervous.
To help both you and your dog, take a look at this express course in body language one-oh-one:
Relaxed and Friendly
A totally relaxed, “loose” stance is what we want here, with the dog’s weight balanced flat on all fours. A head held high is a sign that the pup is pretty unconcerned about what’s going on around him, and he’s generally okay with being approached.
Don’t forget those ears, tails, and mouth, either! They are the furry roadmaps into your dog’s mind. For a content dog, his ears should be up (unless they’re floppy, of course), but not forward. His tail should be hanging loose, or if it’s wagging, wide and “swishy.” He should also have a “long” mouth, meaning the dog is panting and you can see most of his back teeth, as opposed to a short mouth, which is closed with no teeth visible.
Curious and Alert
This dog might smell hot dogs grilling in the neighbor’s yard, or hear a dog barking three blocks away, but he’s certainly paying attention to his surroundings to decide if danger lurks. His body might be a bit stiffer with tensing muscles, and his weight will be pushed forward to the front paws.
The tail may move slightly side-to-side, held parallel to the body and not puffed up or bristled, and the ears will be forward and can rotate or twitch as they angle to catch the sound. A closed mouth is characteristic here.
While too many types of aggression exist to talk about here, there are two “umbrella” terms used by behaviorists: offensive aggression and defensive aggression.
Offensive aggression is characterized by a tall, stiff posture, raised hackles, and a tail raised high. The ears will be pricked forward and may angle away from each other in a “V,” and the mouth and nose will likely be wrinkled, with curled lips and bared teeth. Together, this behavior attempts to make a dog appear larger and more intimidating.
On the flip-side, defensive aggression usually occurs as the result of a perceived threat, when a dog feels protective or fearful. He can express this behavior by keeping low to the ground with his tail down, flattening his ears, and avoiding eye contact.
Social and environmental stress can be apparent in a number of ways. The dog will be low with flat ears and a tail pointing down, and you may notice some rapid panting or lip licking. You may also see yawning, moving in slow motion, or pacing as a sign of discomfort.
You’ve likely seen similar body language at the dog park between two dogs. The less confident pup will try to say “You don’t need to worry, I’m not a threat,” by lowering himself to the ground, flattening his ears, and raising a paw in the air as if to shake hands. His tail may give little wags when it’s lowered, and he may try to lick the more confident dog or the air.
He may also roll over onto his back to expose his tummy, tucking his tail, squinting his eyes, and flattening his ears.
The play bow is the trademark of a happy pup—butt in the air, and head near the floor. This carefree pup is inviting others to play, and has a raised and wagging tail, ears up, and an open, panting mouth.
As a general rule, when introducing your dog to strangers, just stay calm! Your nervousness will make your dog nervous, and that could lead to undesirable behaviors. Also, keep a loose leash, because your dog will feed off of that tension and may get frustrated.
It may help to provide your dog with a little more space if you approach a stranger and see that he is uncomfortable. If you push an already-nervous pup too far, you do nothing to improve the behavior. You want your dog to be like you—confident and sure of himself, so he can put his worries behind him and bark “Let’s play!”
If you have concerns with your dog’s behavior and you live in the NYC area, check out (pawesome!) dog trainer Shelby Semel!