Read Your Dog’s Body Language

The movie Up features a dog with a collar that translates his thoughts into sentences like "I have just met you, and I love you!" Real dogs, however, speak more with body language than with barks.

"While there are fewer than a dozen types of barks, there are hundreds of different ear positions, tail positions, paw positions and more, which dogs use to communicate," says Lisa Mullinax, CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer-knowledge assessed), for 4Paws University Inc. "Body signals give dogs a much more elaborate language than vocalizations could."

Focusing on just a handful of body parts will give you a sense of the basics.

Direct stares often signal confrontation. Pay particular attention to the pupils, says Dr. E'Lise Christensen, a veterinarian and behaviorist at NYC Veterinary Specialists. "Pupils that are dilated indicate a dog that's not comfortable," she adds. Dogs with "soft eyes" that tend to avert their gaze are less likely to be confrontational.

Tight lips are often a sign of stress, but the difference between uncomfortable and threatening can be subtle. Another clue might be changes in breathing: Going from panting to closed-mouth breathing indicates a shift to discomfort, and the opposite indicates increased happiness. 

Two indicators of stress or anxiety are tongue flicking and yawning. "Yawning, when the dog is not relaxed or tired, is a common sign of stress or conflict," says Mullinax. "Sitting in the waiting room at the vet’s office, you may see a lot of yawning in the dogs there." 

Erect ears reveal a dog on high alert, while ears pulled back show a dog that is anxious or stressed. And that spot on the back of the neck behind the ears? This area, called the hackles, sometimes stands up in a spiky row.

"This is called 'piloerection' and is the exact same thing as goose bumps in humans," says Mullinax. "Since arousal and aggression are closely linked, hackles often get labeled as a sign of aggression, but it is not always the case. Just like we get goose bumps at a scary movie or hearing a really heartwarming story, dogs get goose bumps when emotions run high."

The tail is perhaps the most expressive part of your dog's body, but it might also be the hardest to read. A wagging tail is simply an indication of arousal, good or bad -- it doesn’t mean the dog is friendly. A high, tense wag could indicate a potential for aggression, while a low wag could indicate nervousness. A happy, relaxed dog usually has a tail that swings in circles or from side to side. On the other hand, "tail between the legs" is a cliche for a reason: It indicates a scared or stressed dog.

Reading Specific Canine Behavior
Aside from communicating with body parts, dogs also convey information through behavior and posture. For example, bowing forward on the front paws, known as a “play bow,” is a sign of a dog’s playful mood. A slightly different bow is a greeting bow, which is usually accompanied by a stretch.

"Curving" is when dogs bend their whole body into a banana shape and move slowly in a circular fashion. This is a sign that the dog is trying to calm a situation.

One behavior that's often misread is a dog that lies on its back. "Some dogs, especially those that are anxious, may roll on their backs to indicate their wish to end an interaction," says Mullinax. "This is sometimes misinterpreted as the dog offering its belly to be petted or a sign of submission.”

Humans Often Misunderstood
Being aware of these subtle hints will make for a more harmonious existence with not just your dog, but other dogs as well. Consider how we tend to greet new dogs -- we look them in the eye, bend over them and put a hand on their heads. In dog language, says Christensen, "these gestures can actually be pretty threatening."

That doesn't mean you should curve into a banana, pant and wag your butt every time you meet a new dog. But having a walk-a-mile-in-their-paws perspective could put you and your four-legged friends closer to being on the same wavelength.

The Moral Life of Dogs

When a wolf bites, it can inflict up to 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch. Yet when two wolves square off in a playful wrestling match, each usually barely grazes the skin surface of its rival. Why?

In their book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (University of Chicago Press, 2009), authors Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce argue that wolves, dogs and other animals display a wide range of what we would consider to be moral thoughts and actions. These include empathy, fairness, trust and reciprocity.

Good Dog, Good Manners
The best and clearest example of morality among dogs and other canines, such as wolves and coyotes, comes from detailed studies on social play behavior, according to Beckoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Pierce, a bioethicist at the same university. “Although play is fun, it’s also serious business,” they point out, adding that the four basic aspects of fair play in animals are:

  1. Ask first
  2. Be honest
  3. Follow the rules
  4. Admit when you’re wrong

Because actions like biting, mounting and body-slamming can easily be misinterpreted, your dog will signal in advance with a bow that what’s to follow will be playful and non-threatening. If a dog violates this “rule of bowing,” fairness breaks down and so does play, according to the authors. Beckoff adds that his work on coyotes living in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park shows that coyotes who don’t play fairly often leave their pack because they don’t form strong social bonds. Such loners suffer higher mortality rates than those who remain with others. At the very least, he says, “cheaters have a harder time finding play partners.”

From Play to Morality
Beckoff and Pierce claim it’s just a step from play to morality, with studies on children showing similar development of fairness. Like dogs, kids devise rules, or follow pre-existing ones, that allow for a certain degree of justice. Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall says, “As a child, I learned that behaving fairly during play with others was a very important social rule. As a mother, I learned that treating my child fairly was key in building his trust and cooperation.”

No one is perfect, but fair players usually apologize. Dogs do this too, according to the researchers. For example, a bow might communicate something like, “Sorry I bit you so hard -- I didn’t mean it, so let’s continue playing.”

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?
Both Beckoff and Pierce say it’s not fruitful to ask if members of one species are more moral than members of another, in part because “animals do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their species.” But morality appears to vary among individuals. For example, some people display more empathy than others. Some dogs are less aggressive. These differences are likely due to genetics, environmental influences and daily life experiences.

“It may be that dogs have fewer vices. They don’t seem to experience schadenfreude [pleasure derived from the misfortune of others], nor do they seem to take pleasure in being cruel,” says Pierce. She adds that she and other dog-loving friends think dogs are better friends, more loyal, more trustworthy, more faithful, more unconditional in their love and more attuned to our needs and our moods than other humans. So there may be a sense in which dogs are exemplars of certain human virtues.

Lessons to Learn from Dogs and Other Animals
Gorillas mourn their dead for lengthy periods. Elephants care for the sick and wounded in their herds. Rats refuse to push food-rewarding levers when they know that doing so will cause another rat to receive an electrical shock. These are just a few examples of animal behaviors that, if enacted by humans, might fall under issues of morality.

By studying such behaviors, “We learn about honesty, trust, cooperation, justice, fairness and empathy,” say Pierce and Beckoff. “We can be reminded that we need each other, just like wolves in a pack need each other. And we need to treat each other well if we want to live in a well-balanced, harmonious social group.”

A Holiday Party for Your Dog and Guests

The cold weather may have resulted in less time at the dog run, but that’s the perfect excuse to give your pet and its friends their own little holiday shindig.

We enlisted the help of Ada Nieves, a pet party planner based in New York City, for some ideas to put together a memorable canine winter gathering.

If you’re wary of bringing too many four-legged friends into your own living space, ask local animal organizations about using their facilities as inexpensive alternatives to renting a party spot. Some shelter or rescue groups have locations where owners can have parties; instead of getting gifts for the pets, people bring a donation for the place -- a benefit for everyone. Another idea is to check with local pet-friendly bars or coffee shops.

The Guest List
“It’s impossible to invite everyone, but you don’t want to hurt feelings,” says Nieves. Nieves’ client Rachel Passaretti experienced this dilemma. “The most important thing was to create a safe and fun environment for the animals, and by hand-selecting each four-legged guest, we were able to accomplish that goal,” recalls Passaretti. “This was often hard, as we had a few people who even tried to snag invites.”

Nieves thinks the key is to invite dogs that you know will be friendly to other dogs and that are not territorial or protective about food. For friends whose feelings are likely to be hurt, she suggests sending their dog a gift bag of treats and toys to let them know they’re thought of and appreciated.

Canine Attire
Encourage your guests to dress their dogs in seasonal garb. Inexpensive costumes such as elves and reindeer are easy to find these days, and some guests might get creative with homemade getups. For dogs that dislike clothing, Nieves recommends a red ribbon loosely tied like a bow around the neck, or a simple sleigh bell on the collar.

Doggy Gift Exchange
This is just like a traditional grab-bag-style exchange, but the gifts are for the dogs. Have each guest bring a wrapped doggy gift. It’s a good idea to set a price range. Then put all the presents in one location. Nieves says that at her parties, the owners take turns letting their dog sniff around the packages, and whichever package they seem to like most is the one they “choose” and get from the gift exchange.

Pictures With “Santa Paws”
Have someone dress up as St. Nick and pose for pictures with each dog. “People love using those pictures for next year’s Christmas card to send out to all their friends,” says Nieves. Ambitious hosts can even arrange to have the photos printed on-site and handed out at the end of the party.

Doggy Caroling
This can be a hit-or-miss moment, but it’s true that dogs are instinctively wired to howl. If you get all the dogs together and their owners start to howl, often enough, the dogs will follow suit. Before you know it, the whole room is howling together (think of the dog pound scene in Lady and the Tramp).

Of course, over-scheduling such dogtivities can be cumbersome, and some hosts prefer to mostly let the pups enjoy an unexpected day of “free play” while the humans mingle. Regardless of how many of the above ideas you put to use, the important thing is to make everyone happy.

Vacation Safely With Your Dog

When Gerard Hanson of New York City planned a road trip to visit a friend in Maine, he was excited to bring his puppy, Charles, along. But the trip did not go smoothly. “Charles got carsick,” explains Hanson. “Then my friend didn’t want me leaving him at his house alone for more than an hour or two, so my plans for different activities were more or less ruined.” 

Dr. Louise Murray, DVM, director of medicine for the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City, has heard stories like Hanson’s before. “Deciding to travel with a dog is a commitment. If the idea of making sacrifices on vacation doesn’t appeal to you, leave your pet at home,” she cautions. Below, Dr. Murray offers advice for those who do decide that the company is worth the extra effort.

Before You Go
If your dog doesn’t have an ID tag or microchip already, now is a good time to invest in both. The identification should provide two phone numbers where you can be reached. Your pet’s name and address are far less important but should also be included.

Try to pack enough food to last your pet through the entire vacation. “The digestive tract of dogs craves continuity,” says Dr. Murray. While vacation may mean new cuisines for you, new foods can leave your dog with diarrhea or an even more serious condition like pancreatitis, a sudden inflammation of the pancreas caused by eating fatty foods like table scraps. If it’s not possible to bring that much kibble, find a pet store at your destination that carries your dog’s typical fare.

For dogs with chronic health problems, prepare for flare-ups on the road. Pack enough medication and put it in two different places. “You don’t want a stolen car to get in the way of your pet getting much-needed medicine,” cautions Dr. Murray. Bring a copy of your dog’s medical records as well. “If there’s an emergency, you don’t want to be in the ER saying, ‘He takes this little pink pill.’”

On the Road
A dog that never leaves your side at home can still be unpredictable in a foreign environment, like a rest stop. Never let it off a restraint outdoors while traveling. “A dog off leash is at risk for getting injured or lost,” warns Dr. Murray. “No dog is immune to temptation or fear. A passing biker or the backfiring of a car engine can send it running.” Invest in a snug collar that won’t slip over its head.

Just as it’s never safe to let a traveling dog off the leash, it’s also never safe to leave a traveling dog alone in a car. This is especially important during the summer, when car temperatures can become fatal within minutes, even if it’s overcast and the windows are open.

If air travel is in your plans, Dr. Murray warns against taking big dogs on planes, where they must ride underneath the cabin. “Your dog should ride with you in the cabin or it should stay home, unless you’re going away for far too long to consider that option.” She also advises against sedating animals during air travel, as sedatives leave them unable to regulate their temperature, blood pressure and heart rate, putting them at risk for immediate health problems.

Try to feed your dog at least six hours before strapping it into its seat belt. Canine stomachs tend to respond poorly to the bumps and jolts of cars and planes. Nausea and vomiting can result from feeding time being too close to departure time.

At Your Destination
Whether it’s a dog-friendly hotel or a dog-friendly relative who will be housing you during your vacation, it’s important that your pet leave a good impression. “Encourage the trend of dog-friendly hotels by making sure your dog is a good ambassador. Don’t allow it to chew the furniture or to sniff other guests in the lobby,” says Dr. Murray. Before your arrival, review hotel animal policies or talk to your hosts about their expectations regarding your dog.

Ensure your pet’s emotional ease by bringing along something from home that smells familiar, be it a pillowcase or a dog bed. A dog that feels safe and secure will most likely to be an excellent travel companion. “Vacationing with a beloved dog can be really rewarding for a pet lover,” says Dr. Murray. With these aforementioned precautions, it can also be a true treat for your best friend.

Dog Park Safety

I never saw them coming. I was chatting in a park with a friend while his two boxers played with my golden retriever, Allie. The next minute, I felt myself being hit from behind by all three dogs, catapulting me backwards and causing me to hit my head on the ground where I landed. Still, I felt alright. After a minute or two of lying on the ground and checking to make sure I hadn’t broken any bones, I stood up without assistance and drove Allie and myself home. 

But six weeks later, I no longer felt OK.

A Dangerous Situation
I began to have excruciating headaches, and frighteningly, started to lose the use of my right leg. I consulted my doctor, who ordered me to visit the emergency room of my local hospital. A CT scan revealed that I had two subdural hematomas -- masses of blood on the surface of my brain that apparently had developed after my tumble in the park -- and required immediate surgery. 

As my experience shows, romps in dog parks or other places where dogs congregate can be great fun, but they may also spell danger to both dogs and their owners.

Preventing Disasters
In light of what happened to me, I asked dog trainer Robin Bennett, author of Off-Leash Dog Play (Dreamdog Productions 2008) and a nationally known dog day care expert, how people can keep themselves out of harm’s way in dog parks and other popular dog play areas. Here’s what she suggested:

Stay aware “Owners should be aware of what’s going on when dogs are racing around,” says Bennett, who works from Woodbridge, Va. Clearly, I messed up big-time here. My back was to the dogs while they were playing, so I didn’t see them running toward me. I later realized that I had inadvertently stepped out in front of Allie without giving her enough time to swerve and avoid me as the other two dogs followed close behind. The results were my collision with all three dogs, my backward swan dive to the ground and the events that followed.

Maintain loose knees “When the dogs are running around, keep your knees loose,” says Bennett. Loose knees lessen the likelihood that one or more dogs can knock you off your feet, whether from the front or from behind. At the time, I was standing with knees locked.

Move from the entrance “Owners should not stand too close to the main gate of the dog park where all the action is happening,” says Bennett. “I actually recommend that dogs have a good recall command and that they be called to the owner when there is a lot going on at the gate.”  

Head toward the perimeter The middle of the park is also a popular place of activity, which is exactly where I was standing. To avoid being knocked over, owners should stand near the perimeter. However, they should not stand right against the fence enclosing the park. It’s important to give your furry pal some space to come and lie down or sit behind you if it wants.

I unintentionally broke nearly all of Bennett’s rules the day I took my doggie-induced tumble. But I was lucky: My surgery was successful and my recuperation was steady. I’ve also started taking Allie back to the park, but I’m a lot more careful there than I used to be.