It is a well-known fact that pet parents talk to their dogs. “Come, sit, stay” are common words but more endearing terms like “good dog” and “I love you pup” are often heard. The average pup understands about 165 words, signs, and signals according to Dr. Stanley Coren, best-selling author of many books explaining dog behavior and intelligence and professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. Dogs can’t communicate in words, but your dog does talk to you.
You know your dog is happy to see you when he runs to greet you at the door. My Mellow nudges me and stares at the cookie jar to tell me she wants a treat. A lethargic walk indicates that your pup is feeling poorly. These messages are easy to read.
A dog uses body language or dog talk to convey his emotions and his intent for action in many situations. His posture, eyes, ears, mouth, hair and tail form a nonverbal communication system that speaks volumes. The different parts of his anatomy move to form syllables in body language words that convey a unified message. Some “words” in a dog’s body language vocabulary can have more than one meaning, so it is necessary to read the entire body to understand what he is saying.
You can tell a lot from a pup’s posture. A happy dog is laid-back posture with his weight evenly balanced on all four feet. His muscles are relaxed, his ears are held in a normal position, and his mouth is closed or slightly open. He casually wags his tail side to side or in a circular motion. He may bounce around inviting you to play. A happy dog is comfortable with his surroundings. He is calm and content.
An angry dog shows aggression by trying to look as large and intimidating as he can. He holds his head high, his ears up and his tail raised and rigid as he stares directly at the animal or person confronting him. He may raise his hackles, bare his teeth, and growl, snarl or bark in low, threatening tones.
Raised hackles doesn’t necessarily mean your dog is mad or afraid—it can mean he’s being extra attentive to a person or situation. Remember to consider the entire context of the circumstances.
A disturbing situation may cause a fearful, shy, or nervous dog to go into avoidance mode. He will attempt to appear as small as possible by cowering or hunching. A lowered head with ears down, eyes wide and tail tucked between his legs are common signs that a dog is in avoidance mode. He is ready to escape the situation by retreating.
Just as a casual broad tail wag at a moderate pace indicates a happy pup that likes you, other wags send other messages. An excited dog makes fast small side-by-side wags. Slow wags with the head lowered means your dog feels insecure or is trying to figure out a situation. Some breeds hold their tail high or curved over the back with short, fast wags to tell you to give them space.
The vocabulary of a dog may not have words, but his body language can speak volumes. A pet parent who is in tune with a dog knows when he is happy, angry, nervous, fearful or sad. How accurately can you read your dog’s body language?
C. Sue Furman, Ph.D. spent 40 years at several major universities including the University of Maryland, School of Medicine and Colorado State University, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences teaching future physicians and veterinarians and conducting research involving nerve and muscle. Learn more about Dr. C. Sue Furman here.