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Dogs are masters at reading people's body language, and they easily learn to understand words. How well do you understand your dog's body language and vocalizations?

- Kelly Whittington

Dog Life Hack #5: Learn to read your dog for even better communication.

Quick Summary
  • A wagging tail means alert and aware, not necessarily happy.

  • Loose and wiggly body means pet me!

  • Tense and still body means do not touch!

  • Barking is communication, and sometimes, it's important information.

  • Some dogs don't bark to ask to go out, but they let you know in other ways they need to go.

Two-Way Communication

The way dogs and humans, two completely separate species, are able to communicate with each other is nothing short of miraculous. When a person and their dog are completely in sync, it's a beautiful thing. Watch an agility trial, and you will notice the dog looking at their person for information about where to go next. Other times, it's the dog who is giving instruction to their person. Hunters rely on their dogs to show them where the quarry is. Search and rescue dogs guide their handler to the missing person. Drug dogs alert their handler to the contraband. Guide dogs help their person get around safely. 

Even without training, dogs attempt to communicate with us. They will give up, though, if they feel like they aren't being heard. Why keep trying to "talk" to someone if they always ignore you? Of course, we don't ignore our dogs on purpose. Often, it's a matter of misunderstanding.

Not Every Dog Barks

The expectation is that the dog goes to the door and barks to ask to go out. Not every dog does that. There are all sorts of ways a dog may ask to be let outside. Some stand in front of you and stare. Some get restless and start to pace or walk in circles. One dog I fostered would go into the kitchen because he'd figured out I would come to see what he was up to and therefore be up to let him outside. If your dog is using the bathroom in front of you inside, chances are that you missed the cues that they needed to go out. If you're not sure, go to the door and ask them if they need to go outside. Better to offer and be wrong than to have a mess to clean. 

Barks are for a Reason

One night while we were sleeping, one of my dogs started barking. I went to see what he was barking at, and there was a person standing on my back deck. It was sketchy, and she left when I called the police. My cousin, on the other hand, stayed in bed and yelled at his dog to shut up while someone took off with his 4-wheeler. If your dog is barking at something, look to see what it is. It might be something you want to know. If not, tell them it's just the neighbor getting their mail but thank you for alerting me. 

Dogs have different barks for different things. There is an 'OMG, a SQUIRREL!' bark, an intruder bark, and a 'DANGER! DANGER!' bark. When my Doberman barked at squirrels outside, I ignored her as long as it wasn't continuous. One day, the way she barked made me spring off the couch and race outside. The A/C unit was on fire! Good dog! 

Even nuisance barking has a reason. The dog is bored or full of anxiety. Fix the boredom or anxiety, and the nuisance barking will fix itself. If your dog is in the yard barking non-stop as loudly as possible at 6 a.m., they and your neighbors want you to let them inside! Please do! Dogs can also learn that barking at you is the only way to get your attention. Dogs crave social interaction. Make sure they get plenty of social interaction with you without the need to demand bark to get it.

A Wagging Tail does NOT mean happy/friendly

It can, but not always. A wagging tail means the dog is aware and engaged. It does not necessarily mean the dog is happy. Do not assume that it is safe to pet a dog if their tail is wagging. The dog may be curious but nervous, anxious, and unsure. A nervous dog may react defensively if you reach for them. How can you tell the difference between a friendly tail wag and an 'I'm not sure about you' tail wag, look at the rest of the dog. Is their body tense? Are they stretching forward but leaving their weight on their back legs just in case? Do not pet. Are they loose and wiggly so that their whole backside sways with their tail? Pet that dog! The best bet is to let the dog approach you rather than you approach the dog. If they lean their whole body against you, you're in!

Still and Quiet IS a Warning

A dog who bites with no warning is rare, but a dog who bites without barking or growling first is not uncommon. If a dog is as still as a statue, unblinking, and mouth clamped shut, that is not a relaxed dog. Chances are if anyone touches this dog, they will be bitten. Ducking their head, pulling away, eyes wide enough to show the whites are all ways dogs communicate they don't want to be touched. Dogs assume they are clearly communicating that they want to be left alone. If they are ignored, they may "speak louder" by biting you.

Other Body Language Signals

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