DEAR OLD TRAINER: In a column you talked about how it is an advantage in training to read your dog’s body language, but you didn’t explain how to do it. Why is it useful, what do I watch for, and can I see it in my Maltese puppy?
A: Puppies use body language as soon as they can walk, Judy, although they lack the complete communication repertoire of an adult dog.
The reason a dog’s body language is such an aid in training is it is all pure reflex. Dogs don’t try to hide anything so whatever they are feeling is reflected at once in their body language.
The obvious example is the tail. When a dog is happy the tail wags. If they are REALLY happy, as when they see you after you have been gone, the tail wags so hard their entire hind quarters may move. If they think something is funny their tails sweep from side to side.
One of the best Gary Larson cartoons of all time, captioned “At The Dog Comedy Film Festival,” is a view from the rear of a theater packed with dogs, all their tails wagging at the movie.
If a dog is threatening a person or another dog, the tail is held high and rigid and seems to vibrate. If it is between their legs they are scared or depressed. Watch the tail and you’ll learn a lot about your pup.
The face – eyes, mouth and ears – is full of revealing features. If the eyes are wide open and almost dancing, they are excited and want to play. You also can judge a strange dog that way. A dog staring at you directly is threatening. One who looks at you sideways, where you see a lot of the white of the eye, is warning you.
Dogs smile and show their teeth when they are happy, an expression often confused with aggression, but aggression is shown by curling the lips so the fangs show and wrinkling the forehead in what most people call a snarl.
Dogs enjoy faking a snarl with they are playing with someone they love, but they mean business when they snarl at a stranger.
If the ears are up and moving like a radar dish, he is locating a sound. Straight up and turned toward you, he is ready to love on you or to play. When they are most content, they lay the ears back and narrow the eyes. If you see that, your dog is either happy or about to pull a trick on you.
Every movement of a dog’s body tells you what he is thinking. Nothing is more revealing than when a dog spreads his front legs, drops his chest to the ground, and wags his tail, universal dogspeak for “time to play.” When the body is erect and head up, he is relaxed and confident. When he cowers and sinks to the ground, he is troubled and needs your help.
In addition to body language there is a world of vocal language, but that’s another column.
The more you watch dogs, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you bond with your dog and the easier he is to train.
A trainer for more than 30 years, Jack Haskins has rescued, trained and placed more than 2,500 dogs. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.