I’m certain that when the aliens finally land, one of them will make the following statement:
“He was smiling, everything was going great, and then out of nowhere, he was screaming and shaking his fists at me!”
See any parallels with this statement?:
“He was wagging his tail and then all of a sudden he just started growling and lunging! It came out of nowhere!”
Just as humans grin, grimace, and smile nervously with their mouths, a wagging tail has many things to tell us. If you add in a few additional cues, things suddenly start to make much more sense. Is this wagging tail straight up, with the ears pricked forward alertly? Very low, but not quite tucked? Wagging slowly, with a hunched body posture? When they’re written out like this, people have no trouble discerning that these are physical expressions of different emotions, but in the real world, people tend to see a wagging tail and assume they’re good to go.
First let’s break down the tail, and see where that gets us. Angle and wagging speed are what we’re looking for here, and this is one of many reasons I oppose tail docking. I don’t know if it makes strange dogs harder to read for my dogs, but it does nothing to help me. I need my Doggy-Feels-O-Meter in large print, please.
The higher the angle, the more interest and intensity are being indicated. A very high tail, with a metronome like wag is something close to predatory interest, aggression, or agitation. An ideal expression of relaxed, friendly interest has the dog’s tail close to level with their back. As we move lower, we move into nervous and fearful territory.
We combine this with wagging speed, with super-fast wags acting as exclamation points, and slower wags indicating more hesitance or less intensity, and we have a notion what’s going on inside of a puppy head.
Now, if we throw in some ears and overall body posture, we’ll really have something to go on. Ears pricked forward, with a tall, alert body posture, possibly leaning forward slightly? We’ve got some intense interest, but combine that with a low/tucked tail, and it’s probably not good interest. Ears back, with hunched body posture is fear, but when they’re playing, sometimes they’ll put them back so they’re out of the way.
Speaking of playing, the play-bow is big in the language. Butt, and tail up in the air, with legs and head lowered to the ground? It means PLAY WITH ME! And if all dogs in question are using it, you’re in very friendly territory. Often, I’ll see dogs that are exhibiting fantastic body language and play behavior drug away from their friends because they made a play bark or growl. Like the shrieks of small children, the context of these sounds matters. Sometimes, play will get too rough, and it’s better to break it up, but it doesn’t need to be silent. Dogs that are playing rough but politely will take frequent breaks, stop if someone yelps from an accidental ouchie, and lack the intensity of a real fight.
Big cues to stress and anxiety are displacement behavior. Displacement behavior is normal behavior used out of context. Yawning when they’re not tired, panting when they’re not hot, and shaking when they’re not wet and other common behaviors become a place for a dog to get out some nervous energy. They’ll also tend to look sideways away from their stressor, so that a large portion of the white of the eye is visible. This is called many things, whale eye, side eye, or the evil eye. Whatever you call it, it’s a major sign of stress. Just like people who pace, or fidget when they’re nervous, you’ve got to use your knowledge of the dog and his surroundings to know what’s normal and what isn’t. These indications don’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to pull your dog out of the situation that second, but if they keep on consistently, or are accompanied with other fearful or nervous body language, it’s time to go. Doggone Safe has more information on displacement behaviors.
As for a clear-cut sign of a happy dog? The tongue out and lolling to the side says loud and clear that this is a happy puppy. Laying calmly with their head on their feet, or dancing around with an enthusiastic tail and reduced motor control are also good, but for completely unambiguous happiness, I like the goofy tongue.
One of my favorite bloggers, Dr. Sophia Yin, has some great free posters on variations of dog body language.
It’s an important and big subject, but with just a few basics, you can make what your dog is feeling much less mysterious. You’ll know if he’s had too much stranger-attention before he gets into blatant shows of aggression, you’ll be able to tell how much he likes the play or treat you’re reinforcing a behavior with, and you’ll know if you need to pull a toddler off of him, or if he’s loving being used as baby furniture. You’ll be able to read other dogs, and know how they feel about you or your dogs approaching them before things get scary, and you’ll be able to protect your dog from the less friendly visitors to the dog park.