Understanding a dog’s body language can be one of the most important parts of our job as a veterinary professional. While most of our patients are cooperative and easy to manage, there will be some patients who have the potential to harm you. Reading their body language before the situation becomes dangerous is key.
Reading the movements of the head
Have you ever entered an exam room where a patient just seems “sketchy?” When it comes to a dog’s body language, there are a lot of indicators in the eyes, ears and mouth that can help you assess a dog’s overall temperament.
When looking at a dog’s eyes, the white part of the eye (the sclera) can be indicative of a dog’s nervousness or possible aggression. A generally relaxed dog will have an almost almond shaped eye, with very little of the sclera showing, if any. When a dog is on high alert, their eye’s may appear more round and “zoned in” on who is approaching them. Due to the intense focus they now instill, their pupils may dilate and cause a glassy appearance to the eye. You generally will see more of the sclera in these situations, as the dog will have their eye’s open wide. Below is an example of a dog on high alert:
A dog’s ear shape can vary, but there are still some key movements you can observe when approaching a dog. When a dog is happy or relaxed, these muscles around the ears will not hold tension. They may be perked up or point upward, but will not display the obvious intensity they may show in fearful situations. When a dog is stressed, the ears may be flattened to the head or partially backwards, pointing forward toward subject, or wide open and standing firmly. The ears can be a bit more challenging when it comes to observing a dog’s body language, but keep these signs in mind.
While a dog snarling may be the most obvious sign of nervousness and possible aggression, there are other subtle signs you should be aware of when assessing a dog’s body language. When looking at a dog’s mouth, look for any tension in these muscles surrounding the mouth. If the mouth is open and relaxed, it’s likely that you are looking at a content dog. A fearful or tense dog will generally have their mouth closed tightly, and may have the lips pulled back to elongate the mouth. Progression of anxiousness will then include wrinkling of the muzzle, showing teeth, and possible vocalization.
Understanding Dog Body Language movements
A dog’s body movements can speak measures for their overall response to the situation they are in. When you are observing a content dog, you may see movement that appears loose and wiggly! Some dogs wag their tail quickly, playfully bow, eagerly greet you, and even whine with excitement while doing all of the above. The body language of an anxious dog will differ greatly from that of a happy dog. A fearful dog will seem very stiff in the movements they make. Their movements may seem more calculated, and they will intensely observe the subject that may be causing them stress. They will often try to shy away from unknown contact, bow their heads, and may even urinate/defecate when being approached. An aggressive dog may display these signs, along with more intense movements. These movements include a stiff stance that helps them to appear larger, direct eye contact, and a posture that leans heavily on to the front legs in case of a need to jump into action.
What can the Tail tell us?
A dog’s tail can indicate it’s feelings about the current surroundings. The base of the tail and the way the tail moves are important factors to consider when meeting a new dog. A relaxed dog will have a tail that will be in a neutral position extending out from the spine. Once a dog becomes more excited is when the tail begins to rise. Whether it is excitement or possible aggression, the tail will often rise above spine level and stand alert. Fearful dogs will often tuck their tail between their legs.
While one of these signs alone may not be entirely indicative of a dog’s temperament, combining the body language signs can help you determine how to approach a new dog. Knowing how to assess body language will help you prepare for the interactions to come!
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