While I’m targeting DINOS (Dogs In Need Of Space), the information here applies to all dogs. Knowing what any dog is thinking and feeling will put you ahead of the game in promoting social behavior.
The most obvious sign is the elevation, tension and direction of the whole body. Again the signal can be subtle or pronounced. I note whether the dog seems to raise himself on his toes or shrinks back or down away from what is worrying him. Is the dog hiding behind the owner, or clinging to the wall? Is it pulling hard on the leash, leaping and barking at a person or dog? A dog with good social skills toward people, dogs and other animals will be relaxed, usually with his weight evenly distributed over his feet. Play bows are an exception.
Sometimes you can see pilo-erection, where the hair stands up on the withers (the area on the back at the base of the neck) occasionally even down to the tail. When the hackles are up, it’s a distinct sign of emotional arousal. Often hackles will precede a fight, a charge or attack. When I see hackles I do everything possible to defuse the situation before an emotional meltdown occurs.
Like the body, signals from the tail can be telling. In most breeds (there are exceptions) the tail down or between legs signals submission, worry or fear. Early in a new encounter DINOS often tail tuck. On the other hand some of the more reactive ones may flip their tails up just prior to exploding.
What you want to see is a tail held slightly low or straight out wagging in a wide side-to-side arc. If the body is moving side to side as well, that is a happy dog. (Again there are breed exceptions: Pugs, for example, have tails held up and curled. You will never see the open wide amplitude wag of a Labrador, no matter how happy the dog is.)
Belle’s Final Reaction
Remember Belle? She was the dog I used to illustrate how I watched the mouth first? Now I’ll tell you what she did. After the first dog approached and moved away with little reaction on Belle’s part (I couldn’t get that subtle of whisker flick out of my mind), I asked one of the volunteers to bring Lobo closer. I could trust that mellow fellow around dogs. I wanted to see how accurate my hunch was that she had been about to react to the first dog. Normally there would be no reason to bring another dog close to her, but we wanted to find out just how social Belle was with other dogs.
It took a nano second for us to learn; she suffered no fools in her space. No blood, just a very definite snark in Lobo’s face because he came too close. Observation confirmed. (You will be happy to hear that both Belle and Lobo, in separate homes, have been lovingly adopted.)
You should now have a better understanding how a dog’s emotional state is reflected in his body language. More important a dog’s behavior can usually be predicted if you practice informed observation and awareness. My next column will help you use this information to relax dogs and teach them to respond appropriately.