5.) Understanding your dog’s language.

Just like in wolf packs, most of the communication between dogs happens on a non-verbal basis. Visual (facial expressions, gestures and body language), tactile (nudging and touching) and olfactory (smell) communication plays a much more important role for dogs than it does for humans.

For example, dogs are able to utilize just their tail for ten different signals. Breeds like German shepherds, Rottweiler and Malamutes have an entire arsenal of facial expressions that they use to communicate. Researchers at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have even discovered that dogs are able to understand facial gestures of humans. No other animal has been able to do this, not even the ape!

Dogs are born with an instinctive set of postures that can tell us a lot about their current state of mind. These postures can vary in intensity and are sometimes even combined. We can only respond to a dog’s behavior appropriately if we can “read” his body language. Take a look at the examples below:

Dog Postures

Neutral relaxed position

The dog stands in a relaxed position with his weight evenly distributed over his 4 feet. His mouth is usually closed or just slightly open. His tail hangs down relaxed and his ears are in an upright position. This is the normal position of a relaxed and friendly dog.

 

Preparedness Postures

Alert Posture

The dog stands in a calm position. His tail is slightly elevated above his rear. His head is erect and his eyes and ears are pointed towards the external stimuli. The dog’s mouth is closed. The dog is alert and ready to respond.

Watchful Posture

The dog sits or stands in a vigilant and tense position with a slightly open mouth. His head is erect and his ears are up and pointed forward. The tail is extended backwards. The dog is ready to flash into action.

 

Evaluative, Defensive and Aggressive Postures

Impress Posture

The dog tries to stand as tall as possible. He is holding his head up high with his ears up and pointed forward. He is gazing at his opponent, sometimes with his lips lifted to display teeth. His hackles are up displaying a bristle from neck to tail. His tail arches high above his back, slightly waging in a slow and stiff sweeping motion. The dog is aroused and evaluates the psychological strength of the opponent or pack mate.

 

Friend/Foe Evaluation Posture

The dog stands or walks in a calm but watchful manner. He holds his head up high with the ears up and pointing forward. His tense muzzle and lifted lips that display teeth signal his readiness to respond to any potential threat while his loosely waging tail slightly elevated above his rear signal his readiness to greet and interact. The dog does not quite know how to respond in this situation.

 

 Agressive Posture

The dog turns from the Impress Posture into an attack position. He pushes his head slightly forward and distributes more weight onto his forelegs. All legs are slightly bent in preparation for quick movement. His ears are up and he is staring at opponent. His hackles are up and his stiffened tail is raised just slightly above his rear. His lips are curled and his teeth are bared, sometimes snarling. This posture is a dog’s last warning before an attack.

Defensive Aggression Posture

The dog displays both elements of aggression and fear. He stands mildly crouched with most of his weight on his rear legs. His hackles are up (usually from neck to tail) and his muzzle is tense, wrinkled and snarling with teeth exposed. The dog’s tail is typically tucked under the belly and his ears are laid back flat against his head. This is the typical posture of a fear-biter. The dog is afraid and bites out of fear if approached.

 

Humility and Fear Postures

Fear Posture

The dog ducks or mildly crouches with most of his weight on his rear legs. His head is slightly lowered and his ears are laid back flat against his head, slightly pointing downward. His tail is tucked under the belly and his muzzle is nearly closed with his lips pulled back. The dog wants to avoid confrontation.

Active Submission Posture

The dog acknowledges another dog or human’s higher social ranking by going into a crouching position. His head is down or slightly pushed forward below his neck. His ears are back and his muzzle is nearly closed with his lips pulled back. His tail hangs down and wags slowly. The dog is submitting itself to a higher ranking dog, human or wants to inhibit aggression.

Passive Submission Posture

The dog lies suppliant and calmly on the ground. His head is down or slightly pushed forward below his neck. His ears are back and his muzzle is nearly closed with his lips pulled back. His tail lies on the ground, sometimes slowly wagging. The dog is unconfident and/or wants to appease.

Total Submission Posture

The dog surrenders and lies on its back. His rear legs are spread and his tail is either tucked on his belly or laying between his legs. Sometimes droplets of urine are released. His ears are back and his muzzle is nearly closed with his lips pulled back. The dog has completely surrendered.

 

Contact or Playful Postures

 Greeting Posture

The dog stands or walks with his head up or moderately erect. His tail is wagging just above his rear end. The mouth is slightly open and relaxed. More dominant dogs have their ears up pointing forward while younger or more submissive dogs put their ears slightly sideways or back. The dog is friendly and signals its readiness to establish contact.

Greeting Behavior

A dog can exhibit a variety of different greeting behaviors with other dogs or humans. He is slightly bowing down and his tail is wagging (hanging or slightly raised above his back) in a fast, sweeping motion. His mouth is slightly open and his ears are put back. The dogs head is lowered almost level with his neck and nudges up frequently towards the other dog/person. A more submissive dog may greet a more dominant dog with a muzzle nudge or lick as an appeasement gesture. The dog is excited and friendly.

Play Solicitation Posture

In front of his playmate, the dog lowers his front-end almost to the ground. His forelegs are slightly spread. He moves his head, tail and often also his back sideways in quick, jerking motions. His mouth is slightly open and his ears are put forward or slightly to the side. He is fixing his playmate with his eyes. The dog invites another to play in a courtship behavior.

Play Attack

From the distance, the dog gazes sharply at his playmate. He then crouches closer slowly and suddenly charges forward. Just before he reaches his playmate, the dog stops and jumps up or to the side. The dog ears are put forward or slightly to the side and he does not display any hackles. His mouth is slightly open and his tail is up or raised just slightly above his rear. The dog shows playful activity to invite another to play.

Body Signals

 In addition to a dog’s basic postures, there are a variety of individual signals that can help you to understand the emotional state of your dog.

Hackles (lifted hair from neck across back):

– On neck and back with ears pointed forward: cautioning, threatening
– On the lower back in the tail area: something is not right
– On the tail: intent to impress or aggression

 Ears:

– Loose: calm, relaxed or disinterested
– Upright: alert, dominant, assertive
– Turned sideways: curious
– Angled back: submission, fear or invitation to play

Facial features:

– Relaxed, closed mouth: calm, relaxed, friendly or insecure
– Tense, mouth slightly open: attentive, alert
– Lips pulled up exposing some teeth, nose curled: warning, threatening
– Lips pulled back horizontally: Insecurity, fear, submission
– Closed or slightly open mouth, lips pulled to a grin: happiness, friendliness

Tail:

– Relaxed, down: calm, relaxed or disinterested
– Sweeping wag: excitement, happiness, greeting, socializing
– Arched high above the back: dominant, secure, alert
– Pointed backwards straight or slightly above rear: warning, threatening
– Tucked underneath belly: fear, insecurity, submission

(Note: This post belongs to a series of multiple articles about the fundamentals of positive dog training.
Click here to go to the overview page that allows you to easily navigate to each article in this series.)

Back to OverviewReturn to Chapter 4Go to Chapter 6

References:
“Der qualifizierte Hundeführer” by Manfred Müller – Oertl & Spoerer Verlag Germany
The American Association fort he Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

 

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