Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Chasing Tail: Canine Body Language Part 1

My post last week about dog parks inspired me to discuss something too many puppy parents know all too little about- tail wagging. We've all heard someone say it, there have been times we've even said it about a dog: "if his tail is wagging, he's happy". The truth is that it's not always true. A dog's tail is just one part of his body used for communication, and just one thing we as puppy parents need to be able to decipher so we can understand our dogs.
Dogs communicate with their whole body, we simply aren't always good at putting all of the pieces together- I want all puppy parents to be better at that, if nothing else. With an understanding of what your dog's body language you can be armed to help your dog feel comfortable and keep everyone safe. So, this is part one in my series on canine body language. There will be a bunch of parts to this series... It may go on for months to be perfectly honest with you. It's that important. I'll try to include pictures as often as I can because I'm a visual learner and I like pictures of doggies (you know you can't argue with that logic).
Where was I? Tails- that's right. A dog's tail is one of the most easily noticed part of his body (unless your dog is a breed that is docked or has a naturally short tail) which is used constantly in communication with you and the world around him. For now we'll focus on just the tail- not everything else that's going on, because it's easier to start you in the shallow end than toss you in the deep end of the pool.
-You have probably heard that a dog whose tail is wagging means he is happy. This is true if his tail is wagging LOOSELY and EVEN with his backline. Picture a golden retriever wagging his tail. It's pretty level with his body, and is waving gently back and forth. This type of tail wag is a happy tail wag. If the rest of his body is pretty relaxed you're probably safe to pet this one. Here is a video of a past client, her name is Sydney and she is a sweet, loving girl who pretty much loves everyone and everything. This is a clip from one of our training sessions where we were working on less rambunctious greetings. As you can see, she is wagging relatively even with her body, loosely and she is otherwise pretty happy. If you were to pet Sydney, she would lick you all day long as a thank you. 

-A dog whose tail is wagging, but with the tail positioned up as opposed to level with his body can indicate a dog who is excited or on alert for some reason. Some breeds tend to always wag this way (pugs, huskies and other curled up tail dogs), but if your dog can relax his tail, look out for this. It's not necessarily a bad thing, it just means your dog is a bit more excited than normal. If you know your dog gets over excited or reacts to other dogs, cats, people, or anything and you see the tail go up and wag stiffly, it's time to redirect and prevent a sticky situation. In this picture Roxie's tail is almost straight up and stiff. If it were to wag, it would look like a little flag being waved back and forth. Hee ears are also up and back, indicating her interest in something. What you can't see here is the cat that just caught her eye- she thinks cats are great things to chase.

-A dog whose tail is down is unsure, and possibly nervous. The further tucked his tail is between his legs, the more pressure he feels from the situation. If your dog's tail does this, he needs a break from the situation or stimulus that is pressuring him. Please allow him a safe 'out' here, with you to support him. Dogs who are unsure, nervous and feel cornered are so scared that they can and will lash out at just about anything, especially anything new or scary. In the two pictures below, Blair is meeting a very calm, dog savvy girl during class. If you look at Blair's tail it is low, not quite tucked, but not up much from her legs. In the second picture, you can see that she is wagging her tail in this same position. Blair has had a few overwhelming greetings from strangers and is cautious with new people. No worries though, be the last week of class, she was pulling over to play with the girl and her sister, who gladly rewarded her bravery with gentle pets and kisses (probably some treats too!)

-Wagging stiffly vs wagging loosely- generally speaking, when a dog's tail wags loosely it means he is somewhat ok with the situation. When a tail wags stiffly, they are a bit more undecided and waiting for more information from the situation.

 In addition to my experience living and working with dogs, I have read a bunch of books-and have about 20 15 more (I read some of them!) on my Nook waiting for me to read- and compared notes with my other trainer friends to get this information. One of my favorite resources is the book listed below. If you have a reactive dog, a fearful dog, and aggressive dog, heck- a LIVING, BREATHING DOG, do them a favor and pick up a copy of the books below. They are both great resources for dog owners, especially if you have a new, fearful or reactive dog. Another great thing is to take pictures of your own dog- in everyday situations and in stressful ones (as long as you have someone else to help so nobody gets into trouble). Going back and looking at pictures of moments in time can really tell you a lot about your dog!

Canine Body Language, A Photographic Guide: Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog; By Brenda Aloff
On Talking Terms With Dogs, Calming Signals; by Turid Rugaas

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