The Importance of Body Language When Communicating with Your Dog

“A growl or a whine or a volley of aggressive barks are all pretty straight forward and limited means of self-expression. But the dog’s body says much more: the signature play pose -with the head and forelimbs low and the hindquarters up in the air – is an unmistakably happy signal. So is the wagging tail, but here things are more complicated than we think. A wag that’s low and relaxed may indeed signal the happiness it seems to convey. But a high tail, wagging quickly, may signal agitation. Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviorist and adjunct professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has found that some signals between dogs last only a tenth of a second and involve a change in posture of only a quarter of an inch, yet they convey volumes about social status, potential aggression or mating interest. Dogs are equally adept at reading cues coming from us: leaning forward just half an inch may be enough to carry a flicker of menace and discourage a dog from approaching, while leaning back the same small amount may encourage an approach.” Excerpt from a Time Magazine Special Edition entitled “The Animal Mind: How They Think. How They Feel. How to Understand Them.”

The scientific findings of Patricia McConnell are no surprise for those of us who work with groups of dogs on a daily basis. Because body language carries so much communicative weight for canines, we must be very cognizant of the way in which we move our bodies, and we must take note of the way in which they move and carry themselves in our presence as well. A slight change in posture, a lowering of the tail, or a perk of the ears (among other things) can all signify a change in mood or a state of mind. And by deciphering a dog’s mood, we can more readily predict their behavior. Aimed with the knowledge of predictive behavior, we can all become more proactive owners/handlers of our own packs – whether that packs consists of a group of dogs at daycare, or the ones in your own home.

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