The vet’s office: Reading a dog’s body language
By Dr. Beth Engelbert, DVM
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC
Dogs have become an important part of people’s lives, often referred to as man’s best friend. Many pet owners even talk to their dogs. Dogs use vocalizations much less for communication.
Dogs mainly rely on body language, using their voice—barks and growls—secondarily. Misinterpretation of body language or ignoring it until the barks and growls appear can be a recipe for a bite to occur.
One of the most common phrases we hear after a dog bite is “but he was wagging his tail.” Unfortunately, a wagging tail does not always mean a dog is happy to see you. A wagging tail is merely the dog showing he has acknowledged the situation.
Tail position will tell you how the dog really feels. A tail that is up says the dog is alert and aroused. The wag may be slow and deliberate. This dog has the potential to be assertive and aggressive.
A tail that is down either between the legs or under the belly says the dog is fearful or showing appeasement. The wagging is generally fast or frantic. This dog will also have a potential to bite. A tail in the middle usually indicates a dog that is relaxed and attentive. The wag is usually wide and relaxed.
The tail is only a small part of the body, and a dog will use its whole body for communication.
Dogs are very honest when it comes to communication. If their tails want to say something, the ears and eyes agree. Ears that are up and forward mean a dog is alert and confident. The tail will be up too. If the ears are down and back, the dog is fearful or submissive, often with the tail down. Ear position is easier to identify in dogs with ears that stand up. Dogs with floppy ears have the same position, and with practice, people can learn the different positions.
Dogs’ lips will also agree with the ears and tail. If a confident, aroused, “up” dog feels the need to snarl, the lips will go up, like a sneer. If a fearful dog feels the need to snarl, the lips will go down and back, like a frown.
Many schools have programs to teach children how to approach dogs or what to do if a dog approaches them. However, children learn by example, so adults need to know the same information. Children also do not usually have the capability to interpret dog body language and frequently do not have the attention span. While there are many reasons why a dog will bite, hopefully this article can help identify a potential bite and prevent a few.
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC is located at 210 Airpark Road in Marshfield and online at wildwoodanimalhospital.net.