The vet’s office: Reading the whole dog
Making sure you look from head to tail
By Dr. Elizabeth Knabe, DVM
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC
Dogs and humans have evolved together over thousands of years. This has enabled our domesticated dog companions to pick up some remarkable habits and traits that let them be better communicators with us.
Dogs bark much more than adult wolves do, and this is thought to be because dogs use barking to notify humans of their needs and wants. Dogs that live closely with humans also learn how to read the nonverbal communications of their owners such as body postures, tone of voice, and actions. What dog owners can do is learn to recognize the nonverbal cues that their pets send back to them so that social harmony is maximized.
Dogs will use multiple types of signals at the same time to express themselves. For example, a dog lying on its side exposing its belly may also be lifting its limbs stiffly, curling its tail tightly between its legs, pulling its ears back, and looking sideways with the whites of its eyes showing. To some, this dog looks like it wants a belly rub, but others see the signals of fear and submission. This dog is telling you it means you no harm, but it is also asking you to stop doing whatever you are doing that upsets it. A dog that really does want a belly rub will show relaxed limb postures, a relaxed facial expression, a tail that is not tucked, and a generally soft abdomen.
Humans like to hug each other, but dogs do not use their front limbs that way with each other to show affection. Dogs can learn to tolerate hugs from humans, but a dog that dislikes a hug from people may pull the corners of its lips back, pull its ears down and back, and show a rounder eye with more of the white showing. Children, especially, love to give hugs, so this is an area where teaching how to read dogs is important.
Another classic example of the value of reading is in the tail wag. Wagging the tail just means the dog is aroused. If the dog is also exhibiting a still, tall posture, ears erect or forward, the head held up or high, and direct eye contact, it is showing confidence and not necessarily an invitation to be petted. If the tail wag sweeps broadly from side to side and the body is relaxed, the dog is showing friendliness.
People can learn more about K-9 communication from qualified trainers. Another source of information is free posters of K-9 body language from doggiedrawings.net. People can also ask their veterinary professionals for behavior help.
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC is located at 210 Airpark Road in Marshfield and online at wildwoodanimalhospital.net.