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Reading Your Dog

Dogs mostly they "speak" via a body language designed to be understood dog-to-dog; decoding requires some human practice.

Learning to read a dog is much like studying a foreign language. It requires concentration and recognition that communications can have quite different meanings in different cultures and depend on the context within which they are sent.

Dogs bark, whine and growl, but mostly they "speak" via a body language designed to be understood dog-to-dog. The meaning may not be intuitively obvious to humans; decoding requires some practice. To understand "dog" successfully, we must stretch beyond ourselves into canine culture. What are the rewards of making this effort? Clearly a better reading of unknown dogs can prevent the occasional nip. But far more importantly, we gain the chance to interact more fully with the dogs that share our lives. We can reach more of an "inter-species" understanding and deepen our bond by our ability to communicate. It seems only fair. Over the centuries, dogs have become very adept at interpreting human body language and even at learning spoken words and hand signals. Now it's our turn.

A dog's tail, ears, eyes and mouth speak volumes without making a sound. Everybody recognizes a rapidly wagging tail as a sign of canine excitement, but the tail also is a primary conveyor of social standing and mental state. Don't make the mistake of automatically interpreting tail wagging to mean friendliness. Generally, a tail held above and away from the body or curled over the back denotes dominance and, especially if accompanied by bristling of the hair, threatens aggression.

However, some dogs, such as the Siberian husky, have tails that curl up naturally, and would appear perpetually dominant based solely on a tail reading. A relaxed dog, comfortable in its surroundings, generally holds its tail lower and away from its body. On the other hand, a frightened or submissive dog holds its tail close to its body, tucked between its legs. But be aware that some breeds — greyhounds and whippets, for instance — naturally carry their tails between their legs, whether submissive or not.

A domestic mixed-breed mirrors the aggressive posture of his gray-wolf counterpart. Whether displayed by a small domestic dog or a wolf in the wild, this body language means business. Note the similarity in appearance: In each, the hackles are raised; the lips are pulled back in a snarl showing the large canine teeth; and the stare is intent on the subject of aggression. You can almost hear the growl. Few canines, or humans either, would misread the signals: "I am ready to bite!"

A dominant dog walks on its toes, often leaning forward, with a stiff gait. Ears and tail are up, the head is high, and the dog meets your gaze confidently. If it senses a challenge, its hackles rise and it stares more intensely. Your return stare, regardless of how sincerely and kindly meant, may be seen as a challenge and could elicit a bite. When meeting a more submissive dog, the dominant dog may attempt to place its muzzle or paws across the subordinate's shoulders or back. If a dog is highly dominant, it may respond to your touch on or at the back of its head with a growl or snap, reading into your hand position an attempt to express your dominance.

When they're feeling playful, dogs assume the easily recognized "play box" — with tail up, front legs on the ground and an expectant, alert look. The dog may bark, but the context shows it is an excited, not a threatening, bark. An interested dog also exhibits this alert look, standing with mouth partially open, often with his head cocked to one side.

The fearful dog recoils, its ears flat and tail tucked, but it may also show signs of aggression with raised hackles and bared teeth. When confronted with mixed signals like these, always heed the ones from the "sharp end." This dog could bite, although out of fear, not to show dominance. The submissive dog crouches down with its ears back, eyes averted, tail low or between its legs. In a more extreme submissive display, the dog gradually rolls over onto its back, exposing the belly. The animal may even urinate a few drops, perhaps a throwback response to the first authority figure in its life, its mother, who stimulated her pups to urinate and then cleaned them up. Submissive urination is easily misunderstood, especially if produced in response to the owner's anger over some infraction. From a human perspective, the dog may seem defiant, even spiteful. But far from committing an act of defiance, this dog is trying to placate the angry owner by showing extreme submission.

While dogs' primary communication is via body posture and position, they also do some vocalizing. Many dogs seem to enjoy a good bark — especially combined with howling — often to their owners' frustration. A bark can express many things, from sheer joy at the thought of a game of ball to celebrating your arrival home or warning of an intruder. When a gentle bark accompanies a nosing of the leash or a tentative paw on your lap, it may even be a question or suggestion. Dogs will also growl when threatened, whimper and whine when seeking attention, and yelp in fear or pain. In each of these situations, a combination of the dog's body language and an understanding of context are vital to understanding your dog's message.

With wolves, as with domestic dogs, body language can easily be misinterpreted.

In a display of dominance, a dog will stand over another dog, with raised ears and tail, staring intently. Another dog, lowered into submissive position, averts its eyes and holds its ears and tail down. While similar to the posturing of wild canids, this body language usually occurs in play with domestic dogs, and in most cases ends up with the two frolicking together.

The combination of selective breeding and cosmetic surgery molds dogs to suit human tastes, but such modifications can have an unexpected consequence: miscommunication among canines.

When dogs are bred for heavy, long coats, for example, other dogs have difficulty seeing their eyes, ears, mouth and raised hackles and the messages they normally convey. Surgically altering a dog's ears to remain erect and forward means that it will look perpetually alert and dominant, regardless of its true personality. And docking a dog's tail eliminates one way of conveying its feelings to fellow canines.

Most dog owners can easily differentiate between "I want to go out," and "Somebody's out there," as well as other barks conveying happiness, annoyance or even fear.

Small dogs, such as the toy fox terrier, are usually the most vocal of domestic canines, seeming to make up with volume and persistence what they lack in size.

The wolf emits a howling whistle to communicate with its brethren while they circle prey in the undergrowth, enabling the group to coordinate the attack



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