I suppose I have had so many pets over the years that some of the things I take for granted seem mysterious to those who are not “reading” the language of their pet. They really are communicating with us all the time with their body language, facial expressions and vocalizations; it’s just in dog lingo.
Some dog posture is pretty easy to recognize: Bared teeth, combined with a stiff stance and a lowered head is an extreme instance of a dog ready to attack or defend itself, but not all dogs give that obvious sign when they are anxious and feeling defensive.
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A vigorously wagging tail and a big smile on your dog’s face when you come home from a hard day at work are part of the joy of dog companionship. Some dogs even vocalize with what sounds like little whimpers of delight. Some run around in circles and jump up on you, as if you were gone for years.
Dogs greet other dogs with certain rituals as well. If dogs have never met, they will often give each other a moment to see if they want to get closer. A good socialized dog will read the other dog’s signals, then proceed to sniff and maybe invite play by crouching with their rear end sticking up in the air and a wagging tail.
Dogs who want to show dominance can be a little more aggressive and do things like try to mount the other dog to show who is boss. If your dog is like that, there are many ways you can distract him and show him that it is not good pack behavior.
When I first brought home our little terrier mix, Lenny, he was shy with people, especially men.
I bought a couple of books on the subject, and quickly learned that the sideways glance he often gave had a name — whale eye — and it was a sign that he was anxious and needed to keep an eye on us at all times. I also learned it was not polite to approach him by quickly staring at him directly and that a sideways stance made it more comfortable for him to approach me.
According to Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D., in her book For the Love of a Dog, even good dogs get mad.
The expression of a dog’s anger shows in the “closed mouth, lips pushed forward and the eyebrows move together and downward. In dogs this is called an offensive pucker.”
What a wonderful day it was when I first saw our new dog Lenny smile. It took a while, and although he followed me everywhere, and accepted my treats, he still looked like an old soul who carried a heavy burden.
Then, at the dog park, we discovered that he really loved chasing a ball, and the physical exercise and play relaxed his whole body and made him smile.
He looked like a whole different dog. His mouth was relaxed and open and his little white pearly teeth were showing. His eyes were sparkling as he ran toward me and shared his joy. Now I am as excited as he is to get out the door in the morning — I can’t wait to see him smile.
Watch British dog expert John Rogerson try to decipher the meanings of different dog barks:
If you really want to know what your dog may be feeling, spend some extra time with him and observe his interactions with people, places and other dogs. It makes for great bonding and also allows you to understand his needs, even if he can’t use words to express them.
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