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Dog Body Language

An introduction to dog language and dog postures.

Brad Pattison's dog Dez the border collie blue heeler
Brad Pattison's dog Dez the border collie blue heeler

Reading dog body language is important in understanding your canine companion.

If you truly want to be a part of your dog’s life and to be the guardian over their safety, then you need to take time to become educated in their canine language. The language I am referring to can only be studied from watching their bodies, not their voices. Knowing your dog’s body language is important in understanding your dog.

Dog postures are often key to their intended communication.

When dogs extend their necks, it means that they are lashing out in defence. Watch, as two dogs view one another from any kind of distance, and you will notice a definite posture in how the dogs’ necks holds their heads. Obviously, a greeting or the threat of an attack is quite minimal at a couple hundred feet. When another dog enters your dog’s comfort zone, however, another change will take place in the posture of the neck. When the neck and head are held high, the dog is confident about the greeting and will invite the visitor to say hello. If the neck is dropped into the shoulders slightly, you will notice a relaxed body during the greeting.

To illustrate how dog’s teach each other, I would like to use Max as an example of an enforcer, as he would not tolerate any dog being insubordinate to either a human or canine. When Max took it upon himself to correct or discipline another dog at my dog daycare, he did it with great skill and was precise in his actions; he only applied enough power to ward off any retaliation. He was very aware of his ability to break skin and physically damage his insubordinate friend. If there was retaliation from the dog he was correcting, then before he proceeded, Max looked both at the other dog and myself. By looking at both of us, Max was seeking permission to strike again. “The Enforcer” then made an obvious motion with his body: his neck sunk further into his shoulders, enabling Max to strike the other dog with more power. His head then extended in a quick strike with his jaws; not breaking skin, but reminding the other dog that he had crossed the line.

I have seen this action many times with other dogs as well. The neck will be moderately compressed into the shoulders, and then when they need to strike, the neck compresses and extends within the blink of an eye. I imagine the purpose for compressing the neck length is to protect the throat. When a situation is becoming volatile, they then compress their neck further for protection, and strike harder to end the confrontation.

Spotting dominant dog body language

Sometimes, a dog will place its neck and head over top of another dog’s shoulder. This is the dog’s immediate call to say, “I am Alpha.” One of two things can then happen. The dog that is on the underside may say, “that is fine”; and spin in a 180-degree turn to say, “we can play, but you can’t dominate me”. This is a very common reaction. The other option is that the subordinate will flee.

A dog that demonstrates its intention to use power and to “rule the roost” would have gotten nowhere with my dogs, Dez or Max. Dez was never impressed with arrogant attitudes, and she would simply dismiss any bad behaviour quietly. On the other hand, if she was challenged, she would gently warn the other dog to stay away. If the pursuing dog persisted, Dez was quick to react by first showing all of her forty-two teeth. Max would also come to enforce Dez’s actions, and the situation would quickly be diffused by one strike from Max towards the subordinate. I didn’t reprimand Max for stepping in to assist his older sister. I did talk to him immediately afterward, telling him he did a good job and that it was time to relax. His next move was always to follow up on behalf of Dez’s well being. He sought a pat on the head, and it was all soon forgotten.

Sometimes, a fury of action can unfold when two alpha dogs come into contact. Usually a stubborn alpha canine, who feels compelled to prove he or she is ruler of the park, instigates this. This is done by first exerting pressure down on the other dog’s shoulders, and then lashing out to cause emotional or physical harm. If another dog is stalking your dog, leave the park area and go elsewhere, or ask the owner to detain their dog for a short while. Unfortunately, owners who have out-of-control dogs are often uneducated in how to discourage this type of behaviour. Here are things to watch for: The shorter the other dog’s neck becomes, the less time you will have before a bad situation will develop; you will need to get your dog out of there immediately. A long, relaxed neck means a mutual understanding between dogs, so you can relax and enjoy your time while your dog plays with his newfound friend.

Dogs move far faster than what the human eye is sometimes capable of following. Get to know your dog, and try to safeguard him from unpleasant situations. Accidents and incidents happen all the time. Some dogs don’t like each other for their own reasons. Respect the choice they make in whom they choose to play with, or to whom they communicate “hello” or “Stay away from me, I DON’T LIKE YOU!”

Dog parks can be great learning laboratories for observing canine behaviour, as long as we have the knowledge to go along with our observations. We need dogs of different breeds and we need those dogs to act as dogs do naturally. This may sound strange, but with humans interrupting dogs’ playing with commands or even with their stares, dogs’ experiences don’t always occur as they otherwise would.

Dogs don’t often get a chance to be dogs. This leads to frustration, and an unhappy dog will act out discontentment through inappropriate behaviour. We have so much to learn from our own dog, in his/her likes and dislikes, including which dogs and what breeds he/she does not get along with. We can learn these important things through simply letting them play and be dogs.

About the Author

Written by Brad Pattison, Dog Behaviourist, Dog Trainer & Puppy Trainer

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