As I was flipping through photos of my visit to the dog park with Susan and her family, I noticed what a good study of dog behavior I had collected. I thought I would try to sort it out in some coherent fashion for you. If you are interested in learning to read dog body language, I suggest a visit to a dog park, with your camera and no dog of your own to distract your attention. Just watching dogs, and taking photographs for later review, is invaluable when trying to learn more about our best friends.
The first thing you notice is that dogs rarely greet each other face to face. Instead, they sidle up beside one another lengthwise, in a nonthreatening posture. Here Nellie and a German Shepherd say "hello" in typical dog fashion.
Then, they proceed to sniff each other's genital area, getting a sense of who the other dog is.
The olfactory world of dogs is one we will never be allowed to enter. Their sense of smell is so acute that a dog would be lost, worse than blind, without it.
The "T" position is another one you will see frequently. Here, the brown dog (a terrier mix, or perhaps a 'doodle) seems to be offering a ball to the black and tan dog.
Watch heads and tails for signs of relative pack position. A dog with his head and tail up, his ears forward and his weight shifted to his front legs is the more dominant animal. In the case of these two dogs, either they are of relatively equal status or perhaps they haven't decided yet. The black and tan dog's tail is at half-mast and the ears are slightly forward. We can't see the brown dog's tail, but his ears are somewhat back on his head. Both dogs have their weight evenly distributed.
Another case of equal status dogs - Holly (on the left) and her mirror image on the right are in lateral presentation (side to side), circling and sniffing each other, and with their heads, ears, and tails in almost exactly the same position.
Sometimes one dog will approach another from the rear for a sniff,
but they usually end up side to side or in the T position as shown in the photo below.
Here, Grace and the German Shepherd are nose to nose, but still at right angles to each other. At first glance, these dogs seem to be fairly equal in status, but closer inspection shifts the balance a little to the shepherd's side. Grace's ears are back, and her weight more to the rear of her body, which is curved away from the shepherd. Without the benefit of a tail, it is a little hard to say what she is thinking about this situation. The shepherd's ears are up and his tail is down, which appears to me to be a neutral stance, since his weight is centered and the position of his ears and tail are not exaggerated.
Compare the previous postures to the white pit bull and the chow in these photos. Here, the chow is clearly the dominant animal. His tail is held high and forward, and his ears are also pricked forward.
In comparison, the white dog is holding his head low, his ears are pinned back on his head, and he is soliciting attention from under the chin of the chow, as a lower ranked pack member would greet a leader dog.
Watch Hooper and the Bernese Mountain Dog in these photos. Hooper's tail is held high over his body, his ears are forward, and he is leaning towards the Bernie, who is obviously intimidated. As he moves to hide behind his mom, his head is held low and his tail is down.
Once he feels more comfortable behind her, his head and tail come up a bit, but he still doesn't want to greet Hooper. Despite his size, he shows all the signs of a submissive animal in relation to Hooper.
It's another story with a different set of dogs. No need to hide behind Mom this time, the Bernese has his tail high, his ears forward, and he is leaning into the beagle mix for a good sniff. Either he hasn't noticed the Whippet behind him, or he just doesn't care.
I don't think I ever saw the beagle-basset mix standing. He was always the lowest dog (physically) in any group of dogs, allowing other dogs to loom over him, and never taking a more dominant stance. Don't feel badly for him, though. He looks very comfortable in his role.
He didn't even stand to be petted by Lorelei, but he is enjoying the attention, as his thumping tail indicates.
On the other hand, this Boston was a nervous wreck. His ears are pinned back, he is approaching cautiously, and he holds up a front paw when he pauses (a sign of unease in some dogs.) He appears to want attention from the girls, but is hesitant to approach them. He is ambivalent about the whole encounter.
Among a group of dogs, his anxiety is even more apparent. The whites of his eyes show, his ears are back, and he is frozen in position. He doesn't know where to look or what to do, and the other dogs are ignoring him.
This dog shouldn't have been thrown into this situation without some socialization first, starting with only a couple of small dogs or puppies, before meeting this many big dogs and strange people. The owner didn't seem to recognize her dog's distress, but I did. This is the kind of dog I would be worried about biting a child - he is stressed, off-balance, timid. Make the wrong move or trap him, and he might strike out in fear.
Another Hooper series - this guy just exudes self-confidence. Watch the crazy young male Boxer try to solicit attention from Hoop. He is down in a play bow,
then begins barking and leaping about, as you can tell by the blurry images.
Hooper looks on indulgently. "Goofy kid," he must be thinking. "What a nut!"
But, when Hooper deigns to greet him, the power is all on his side. Notice his weight is way forward on his front legs, and his tail and ears are up. Here is the T position again.
As he leans in for a better sniff, the tail comes all the way over his back, and the Boxer turns his head away slightly, avoiding any eye contact.
I hope you have enjoyed this primer of dog vocabulary. Really, we only touched the surface of how dogs communicate by the use of body language. The next time you watch dogs freely interacting with each other, try to read their postures and see if you can interpret what they are saying.