Understanding Your Pet's Body Language

Understanding your pet by understanding their body language.

My name is Scott Shwarts and I'm a pet behavior counselor. My background is in applied behavior analysis, which is the science of predicting and modifying (or controlling) behavior. In what I hope to be regular postings, I'll be discussing many of the problems or just plain interesting behaviors we all see with our pets. I hope you'll ask questions and make comments so we can have a wide ranging discussion. 

Understanding Body Language

Your dog (or cat) speaks with its body. Most of the time us humans are completely oblivious as to what they are saying. By building an understanding we can go a long way to making the relationship even stronger and help to resolve problems. In this posting we'll concentrate mostly on dogs, but many of these behaviors apply equally to cats.

Animals use their bodies to make signals and these signals are often subtle. It can be as simple as a weight shift or blinking or yawning or just the shape of their bodies. The tail for example says a lot. Its level, speed and tension can tell us how aroused the animal is. Remember that arousal can be good and bad. Plenty of people have been bit by a dog with a wagging tail!

You know the saying, the eyes are windows to the soul? Your dog's eyes truly are. A relaxed, squinty eye contact with loose, full body wag is generally friendly interest or an attempt to connect socially, whereas hard eye contact - a direct unblinking stare with still, forward posture - could be a challenge or a threat. Glancing away briefly during greeting, acts as a calming signal. Looking away with chin up, as if looking at something more interesting, can be disinterest or a signal to cut-off contact. And averting the eyes with the head lowered, ears back, blinking, lip licking might be discomfort or shyness.

The one thing you can do best for your canine pal is to understand when they are stressed. Mild to moderate stress can be indicated by:

  • Lip Licking
  • Yawning
  • Turning away
  • Ear Position
  • Displacement Behaviors (suddenly your dog starts sniffing around or doing other things out of context which may look like the dog is stubborn, distracted or disinterested)
  • Moving slower

While more increased stress can be indicated by:

  • Ears back
  • Tail Clamped
  • Back Rounded
  • Dry Panting

Understanding when your dog is stressed and helping them through or out of the situation goes a long way to "being in the moment" for your dog. In the next posting we'll discuss more about body language. In the meantime, when you're out for your walk or at the Gulfport dog park, start watching your and other dog's bodies more carefully. See if you can figure out what they are saying from a dog's viewpoint.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Priscilla March 31, 2012 at 12:53 PM
I am glad this will be a regular feature. We have a new weimaraner puppy ( 4 mo. old now) and I have had my son reading The Other End of the Leash to help train him. I do think dogs use body language much more than we realize.
Scott Shwarts March 31, 2012 at 01:04 PM
An excellent choice of book, any of Dr. Patricia McConnell's books are great (I give to my clients some of her booklets as "homework"). Dog's do their best to try to read our body language (this includes our face of course). We must sometimes be saying the strangest things as times. I'm thankful my dogs are so forgiving!
Lynda April 01, 2012 at 01:08 PM
Helpful information. Looking forward to more articles! We have elderly, chronically ill dogs who we watch carefully for signs of stress or pain so really appreciated the body language info, especially about yawning; hadn't heard that before. Thanks! And I will certainly confirm that dogs with wagging tails can bite; a lesson from my long-ago college days when I was a seasonal letter carrier!
Cherlene Willis April 01, 2012 at 01:34 PM
I'm very happy to have Scott as a blogger on Gulfport Patch! I'm looking forward to his series!


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