In Savannah Morning News Column

Our Dogs have A Lot to Say if You Listen and Watch

Savannah Morning News – January 12, 2018 Michelle Thevenin, Chief Executive Officer

“Oh, they’ll be fine, they’re both wagging their tales.”

“He’s barking, he must be aggressive.”

“Everything was fine, and then she just bit him with no warning.”

If I had a dollar (or maybe even just a quarter) for every time I’ve heard one of the statements above and known it to be a misreading of dog body language, I would be wealthy and could retire.

Wagging Tails:  Not all tail wags are the same!  A slow stiff tail wag may signify worry or uncertainty which could turn into fear or a tussle.  My dog Taylor (a husky/shepherd mix) has a tail that goes in circles (like a helicopter) when he is having great fun and playing.  A low slow wag might indicate fear or appeasement.

Barking: While barking is not body language, it is certainly a signal that can be misread.  As anyone at the dog park knows, Taylor loves to talk at the park.  He barks on arrival to announce himself, he barks in frustration when he can’t keep up with the younger dogs in a game of chase, he barks to warn us about the bicyclists or skateboarders outside the park and he barks at children who come too close (he is not a fan of children).  He also barks to tell me how excited he is that I am home from work or that I’m about to feed him dinner.  Taylor has a lot to say.  On the other hand, Phoenix, my English Shepherd mix, rarely barks.  Most often I catch him barking at squirrels, my cats or another dog, when he wants to play.  It’s usually just a couple of yips and he’s in play bow posture.  Otherwise he is pretty quiet (which is good as Taylor does enough talking for both of them).  All of these barks communicate different things and should be read in combination with the dog’s body language.

Bite warnings: We’ve all seen those pictures on Facebook of children hugging dogs.  Generally speaking, those are not cute pictures to those of us who can read the dog’s body language.  I see lip licking, yawning, stiffness or “whale eyes” – all signs of fear or anxiety that indicates a dog is in a situation it isn’t comfortable in.  These are a few of the signs a dog might give before it starts to struggle or give a warning nip.  I don’t know the exact percentage, but I bet a fair number of times when a dog bites it did give a warning but it was naively ignored (or worse yet punished because it gave a warning growl).

Our dogs have limited means of communicating with us verbally.  But they have a rich body language and if you are skilled at reading it, you can prevent potential mishaps or know when to step back and let your dog interact with other dogs or humans.  On the other hand, your dog is constantly reading your body language – we unknowingly say a lot with a mere stare or hand gesture.  We can live more harmoniously together when we can accurately interpret each other’s “language”.

If you want to learn more about dog body language, come to our free monthly seminar on Saturday January 13 at 3pm at Pet Fix Savannah (7215 Sallie Mood Drive) with our professionally certified dog trainer, Allisia Vroom.  This is a human’s only event – please leave your dogs at home.