Joan Merriam: ‘Listening’ to your dog
February 15, 2018
"Sit!" "Come!" "Good dog!" "Bad dog!" These are some of the most common words we use when interacting with our canine friends — and of course, we assume our dogs understand.
We expect our dogs to listen to us, but by and large we humans do a pretty poor job of "listening" to our dogs. Dog behavior is both mysterious and complex, and much of the time we base our understanding on uninformed observations we take as fact.
Tail wagging? The dog is happy. Growling or snarling? The dog is aggressive. Barking? The dog hears or sees something unfamiliar, or is being intentionally annoying. Yawning? The dog is sleepy.
The problem is, none of these assumptions is necessarily correct. If you want to truly "listen" to your dog — that is, understand what he's trying to communicate — you need to understand a little about canine behavior.
Looking for a sign
So, let's start with the most obvious signal: a wagging tail. Yes, it's most often a sign of a happy, relaxed dog, but not always. If the tail is in about the halfway position and is waving either slowly or quickly, it's a sign of happiness or anticipation.
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Be careful, however, if the dog's tail is erect like the sail on a ship: no matter if it's quiet or wagging furiously, this could mean that either the dog is excited and ready for play, or that he's signaling hostility.
How can you tell which is which? Look at what else he's saying with his body language. Take ears, for instance: if they're pinned back, it means the dog is either fearful or submissive — and a fearful dog can easily morph into an aggressive one.
The same is true of eye contact: if a dog is standing with her tail held high and not moving, with her ears laid back, and she's either avoiding direct eye contact or giving you the if-looks-could-kill stare, an antagonistic action could be next on her agenda.
You can see by these examples that dog communication isn't always easy to read, especially if you're just observing a single behavior; rather, try looking at the constellation of behaviors to figure out what's really going on.
Understanding the signals
Let's go back to the tail. Most people know that when a dog's tail is tucked under, it's a signal of fear — but did you know that it can also be a sign of deference or submission? You have to observe the whole dog to tell which it may be.
Ears are another indicator of what a dog is trying to tell you. Ears that are either slightly back or forward and relaxed means the dog is being friendly, but if they're either pulled back against its head or pushed forward (ears "pricked") the dog may be showing excitement, assertiveness, or antagonism.
So, look at his eyes. Closed or squinted? Wide open? Looking at you softly? All of these are signs that the dog is feeling relaxed and friendly. A hard stare or refusing to look at you at all can be danger signals. And a tough, eye-to-eye stare with another dog probably indicates a battle for dominance.
We all know that a dog who's growling or whose lips are pulled back in a snarl is being aggressive, right? Wrong!
Often, dogs who are playing will growl and snarl in ways that may lead you to think they're bent on killing each other, but it's all part of the play ritual. (You need to step in, however, if that "play" appears to be getting out of hand, or becomes too intense.)
Dogs whose lips pull back into a classic "grin" when they look at you could be sending a signal of either submissiveness or fear, but if the lips appear to be puckered and pushed forward in a snarl, it's usually a sign of aggression. Dogs that are yawning or licking their lips aren't necessarily either tired or hungry: both of these behaviors can also indicate stress or fear.
Generally, a dog whose hackles are raised is aroused in some way, but it's not always a sign of aggression: sometimes dogs' hackles will become erect if she's fearful or uncertain, or if she's engaged in play with another dog.
If a dog's body position is tall and erect, it's usually an expression of confidence; be careful, however, if that posture moves forward into a lean — especially when combined with raised hackles — as this can signal aggressiveness. If on the other hand, the dog is leaning backward, is looking away, has his ears pulled back and has either a tucked-under or wagging tail, he's being submissive.
And then there's barking, to which I could devote an entire column and still not touch on everything. Again, you need to know what's going on with not just the rest of the dog's body, but with his exterior circumstances.
Dogs who are lonely, confined, anxious, or afraid can bark nonstop, whereas barking that begins and ends fairly quickly usually means an alert. Dogs do not bark just to bug us—they're trying to tell us something!
In a future column, I'll talk about what our own body language says to our dogs … but in the meantime, remember that "listening" to our dogs means paying attention to everything they're saying!
Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you're looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.
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