Dogs are pretty complex creatures. So much for so-called scientists who even in the mid-twentieth century still believed dogs were nothing but biological “machines” and incapable of thought or feeling — let alone communication. Of course, these “scientists” had no proof, had not performed measurable, repeatable experiments. But that’s a whole other topic and I wanted to continue about dog body language.
Focusing on a dog’s tail to judge her mood — and ignoring the rest of her body — will just not tell us what she’s likely to do. Few people would trust the grin of that back-stabbing office co-worker to mean she wishes us well. So, why do we think a dog’s tail-wag is so much simpler to understand? Seems like we have something in common with those scientists — expecting that dogs, being “lower” animals are going to be less complicated that the human animal.
Dogs communicate with their entire bodies: all body parts, plus posture and where the dog sits, stands or lays! Stanley Coren tells of an owner who consulted him because his terrier was biting people “out of the blue” — being very friendly one second and attacking the next. Upon questioning, Dr. Coren discovered that the terrier would have a toy or bone and when approached would stand over it head up and tail up wagging furiously. The owner and others, seeing the wagging tail would assume the dog was happy. But the dog’s body (head up and tail up) and where it was standing (OVER the toy) told a totally different story.
Standing over the toy, indicated the dog was claiming it. Head and tail up meant he was very confident in his abililty to “defend” his prize. His fast-wagging tail meant he felt very strongly about this, and wanted everybody to know it. Another dog would have seen those signals and realized that she had two choices: 1) back off, or 2) be prepared to fight for the toy. But the people misunderstood, and kept coming closer, probably trying to pet the dog on the head/back (a challenge for authority) and the poor terrier had no recourse but to give a warning snap. The people felt betrayed — but so did the dog!
In fact, the dog was probably giving other subtle signals to back off. With most dogs, a bite is the LAST warning in a long series. As with the terrier, dogs warn with their posture and by claiming an object or spot by standing over/in front of it. Then, they give a warning LOOK which is a head snapping around to face the interloper with a hard stare (remember dogs consider eye contact a challenge.) If that is ignored, the upper lip wrinkles. If THAT is ignored, the upper lip pulls back to reveal the teeth. At this point, or shortly after, the dog growls, and it’s body is becoming stiff. If all these signals are not enough, the next step is a warning snap, not meant to connect, and only after all that will a dog actually bite. There is usually a moment of total non-activity — a “freeze” — where the dog’s mouth shuts and her entire body becomes absolutely still before a bite. When you see a dog becoming very still — back off and give it some space.
These steps take a long time to describe, and a dog can run through all the steps very quickly, almost too fast for humans to perceive. And some dogs’ signals are much more subtle than others’. I’m sure that a slow-motion replaying of the Rottie who bit the animal control officer (see Speaking “Doglish” part one) would reveal all of these steps, but they were very restrained and sped up. (Note: Rotties tend to be much more subtle and so harder to read than many other dogs.)
And yet another misunderstood signao: a GROWL, is a GOOD thing! The dog is trying to communicate her unease, unhappiness, or dissatisfaction. It ISN’T “mean” or “vicious!” In fact, I recommend that we are very careful and DON’T punish our dogs for growlingl. If we do, the dog may learn to skip that vital step in the escalation of warning — and go straight to the bite. Instead, I think we need to listen (as well as look for) what the dog is trying to tell us.