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What Is Your Dog Telling You?

by Sharon Potter

By watching a dog’s head, body and tail language, you can make training much easier — for you and your canine companion.
The most valuable aid to training effectively is the ability to read your dog. What we’re talking about is your ability to understand the body language and expression of your dog and then being able to apply this knowledge to the current training situation.

Why is this an important skill? If we don’t have the ability to understand what the dog is telling us, we will make mistakes and errors in judgment throughout the training process. Dogs don’t have the ability to say aloud, "Hey, slow down a little; I don’t quite understand what you want," but they sure can say it with silent body language.

Correctly reading a dog is not difficult. It does, however, require that we pay close attention to the signs. Areas we need to focus on are: the tail, the head position, the ears, the eyes, and the body position.

The Tail
The main indicator of a dog’s attitude and comfort level is especially easy to read: Watch the dog’s tail. The most commonly recognized thing dogs do with a tail is obvious — they wag it. However, there’s more to reading your dog’s tail than just seeing it wag and assuming the dog is happy. Let’s go further into detail and translate a wagging tail into its many meanings.

Wagging Tail — An erectly held, wagging tail is a sign of excitement and confidence. The tail is held high, and is moved at a medium to quick speed. You’ll see this when a dog gets birdy or when it is happy, self-assured, and confident. If the dog is holding its tail low and wagging it in a tentative manner, this usually means the dog is showing signs of submission or surrender, or it may be a sheepish gesture that translates into, I don’t know what got into me; I just had to chew up your best shoes. Please don’t get too mad at me. If we take the wagging and break it down further, it can have even more meanings. For example, a slow, short wag, where the tail is moving, but not traveling far from side to side are signals of uncertainty on the dog’s part. A very rapid wag, on the other hand, indicates location of game, and usually tells us that the dog is about to jump into it because they can’t stand the excitement any longer. This is a great indicator of whether or not your dog is going to hold that point or bust the birds. If the tail stays high and steady, your dog probably will, too. If the tail stays high and starts to wag rapidly, usually accompanied by a lowering of the nose and then the head, get ready for the dog to make a move.

Tucked Tail — Another tail position that is often misread is the tucked tail. You know the look: tail wrapped between the hind legs, with sad eyes and a "poor pitiful me" expression on the dog’s face. This can mean a shy dog, which is either genetic or man-made. If it’s man-made, check out articles on the danger of anger directed toward your dog. If you have given your dog no reason to fear you via anger, then a tucked tail is no more than an act. By this we mean your dog is using "pack language" to tell you that it doesn’t want to do what you want, but isn’t willing to argue about it either. A dog that is willing to argue the point will assume a more aggressive posture, which we’ll discuss later. The tucked tail means, "go away and leave me alone. I would rather not cooperate right now, but I don’t want to fight about it, or, I give up, but I don’t understand what you want." This particular behavior in one often misread by dog owners. Many people figure the dog is frightened or cowering, and the person immediately stops asking the dog for a response. This is exactly what the dog was telling you to do! It’s amazing how well they can train us if we’re not savvy to the real meaning of these postures. Don’t buy into this act; dogs learn to get their way very quickly by playing "poor pitiful me." In the case of a tucked tail, gentle persistence and repetition will get your point across, and the dog will respond after realizing that acting won’t fool you. Let’s move on to the body of the dog.
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