What your dog's body language is saying
It was great for a while – kept him busy, kept him happy. Turned out there was only one problem. Zeke was addicted to one of its ingredients, apparently the same ingredient found in the binding of hardback books. Soon he was perusing our bookshelves while we were at work, wondering, “How did they get a pig’s hoof in that book?”
Consequently, Zeke took up a new hobby – reading books. While we were at work, Zeke plowed through Harry Potter, improved his vocabulary with a dictionary, and was just heading on to cookbooks when we caught on. Every evening we came home to discover that Zeke had checked out another book from our home library – the disfigured hardback cover evidence to his new found passion. But, how could we get mad? As we walked through the door, there he was, squinting his eyes at us, so innocent, so sorry, obviously feeling tremendous guilt.
WRONG!! Actually what Zeke was doing was employing a canine calming signal. He wasn’t particularly sorry; he was simply trying to calm us down because, obviously, we were upset about something and he knew how to fix that – squint and look innocent.
Zeke spoke the language of dogs, a language we weren’t conversant in at that time. Through body movement, facial gestures, tail wags, etc., dogs communicate loud and clear to each other how they are feeling. Spend a day at a dog park and watch. Here are a few things to look for:
• Head turning: A dog uses head turning to tell an approaching dog to calm down, or to tell a person or another dog that he’s uncomfortable with a situation. When you approach a dog straight on – very rude in the doggie world – and the dog seems scared or growls, you too can use this signal. Stop moving toward him and turn your head to one side. Avoid looking him in the eyes.
Note: The polite way to approach a dog is to walk in a curve toward them, without staring, and if you’re going to pet them, do it on their back, not on their head – also very rude.
• Licking the nose: This is another calming signal dogs use to calm themselves, other dogs or that pesky human approaching them straight on. This isn’t a signal that you might want to try unless you are very talented or have a very long tongue that the dog will notice.
• Yawning: How many times do you say, “Oh look, Spot is so tired...or bored”? Actually your dog yawns when he’s scared, nervous or uncertain about another dog. This is also one of the best signals you can use to calm your dog down. If you notice your dog’s fear or agitation, just stand still and yawn. And yawn. And yawn. Like humans, it’s contagious amongst dogs. In massage, yawning is also a sign that, “I’m relaxed, just keep doing what you’re doing.”
• Sniffing: Your dog may sniff the ground when another dog is approaching, when someone is walking in a straight line at him, or when another dog suddenly appears too close. Sniffing is another calming signal – it tells another dog, “I mean no harm, let’s stay calm, etc.” Though you would look pretty silly sniffing the ground, to calm a dog you can sit down and pretend you found something on the floor or grass.
• Another interesting sign to watch for is splitting. When a situation seems about to become too tense between two dogs, a third may walk between them to split them up. The dog is trying to defuse the situation. I have also seen dogs do this when they think something is going on between two people. Everyone needs a referee in their home.
These are just a few calming signals and talking terms between dogs. It’s fascinating to watch. Other signs are read by the position of their tails, the curved way they approach each other, the ritual smelling of the hind end, etc. While I don’t suggest you go around sniffing your dog’s hind end, or anyone’s for that matter, sniffing the hind end is the way dogs meet and greet each other – from the rear, not the front. I suggest we just keep with the handshaking routine.
If you want to learn more about what your dog is “saying,” check out “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals” by Turid Rugaas. It is a small, concise book with lots of information. Then pack the dog to the dog park and be amazed by the all the “conversations.”
Next time: Although they don’t lie there with cucumbers on their eyes and a towel covering their privates, massage is as beneficial for dogs as it is for humans. Stay tuned.
Lynnie Ford is a state-certified small animal massage practitioner. Visit her blog, Wag Wellness, at www.wagwellness.com.
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