As a dog trainer, I find I’m getting more and more questions these days about dog-dog aggression, off-leash parks, and dog-communication in general. This is a fascinating topic! It’s amazing just how well our little furry buddies can communicate if we understand their language!
Let’s start with some basics. Dog communication is primarily physical. It’s body language that puts ours to shame! The dog’s body posture tells you a lot about how he’s feeling and what his intentions are. For example: the really adorable beagle that comes into doggy daycare for the first time. She comes into a group of about 4 other dogs, (the others are on the other side of the fence so she won’t be overwhelmed), the others all want to greet her and sniff and share doggy jokes with her.
Because she doesn’t know these dogs, she’s feeling a little unsure – her hackles are up. Her owner is afraid she’s being “aggressive”, but the rest of her body language, her tucked tail, head down, turning sideways to the other dogs tells another story. She’s nervous. After a few minutes of bouncy greetings she realizes the others are friendly and playful and she’s in the thick of the funnest wrestling match she’s ever enjoyed! What fun! Her coat is slick now, her tail and head are up and she’s giving as good as she gets in the play time.
Dog play often makes owners nervous. It can be loud and is usually rowdy. The thing to watch for is that the dogs are taking turns playing “dominant”. Even with dogs mismatched for size, we’ll find that the big dogs are “on the mats” as often as the little dogs. When you get one that doesn’t want to take turns, you have to give the dogs breaks in the play session so no one gets bullied or scared.
The rule of thumb in doggy play session seems to be “any thing after a play-bow is just in fun”. That doesn’t mean that you should leave your dog unattended with strange dogs though. Sometimes one or the other will take offence and a more serious situation can develop. Signs to watch for include a hard stare… if you’ve ever seen it, you know what I mean. If the dog is staring, without blinking for longer than two seconds, you might want to interrupt the line of sight – step in between the two dogs, call them off for a treat and a break in the play session to let things cool off a little. Other clues that things may not be going well are a still, stiff, upright stance or a slow, straight line approach towards the other dog. A more polite way for one dog to approach another is a curved approach, with a happy grin and a soft eye – they seem to be radiating good-will as they approach the other dog.
If this topic piques your interest, there’s a really good book on the market, “How to Speak Dog” by Stanley Coren. It’s well written and really helps those of us who are trying to speak Dog as a Second Language.
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