Monday, September 17, 2007

Dog Body Language

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.


holly said...

Wonderful! Not only were the pics great but the behavior descriptions - I found myself reading them and then studying the pics. Some I've watched Libby and Lucy do.

When we first got Lucy, she was the Boston. Ears back, whites of the eyes showing, mouth held closed, tail nervous (and she never wagged.) She's done a complete 180 since. She still is a little unsure in some situations but not terrified. Eyes look normal, mouth is relaxed and 'smiling' and tail works really well! It's been amazing to watch the transformation.

holly said...

Something else I wanted to ask you. There's no dog park here so I was curious - is every dog as well behaved as these pictures would indicate? Are there ever serious fights or does everyone just get real laid back there? Libby would love a place like that.
Wish we had one around here.

Hooper has the most beautiful wolf-face! Robbie is in love with him.

KatDoc said...


Congrats on helping Lucy adjust. I always find it remarkable to watch a dog's face go from pinched, tight eyes and a grimace around the mouth to wide-open, rounded eyes and a big smile. It's a little miracle!

Although most of our visit to the dog park was pretty relaxed and casual, it was not quite incident-free. I did see a couple of situations where a play-fight started to get out of hand, but alert owners stepped in and broke things up before anybody got hurt. I didn't get any pictures of the female Saint Bernard who tried to mount Grace in a dominance posture and when Grace objected with a growl, the Saint grabbed her by the back of the neck and started to shake. We got them apart and Grace had spit marks on her neck, but no holes. The Saint's owner took her out of the park not long afterward.

I can't say what the exact problem was, whether the Saint was a known troublemaker, whether it was an example of 2 equal status dogs vying for position, or how much of it was my fault. In my job, I have seen injuries from fights at dog parks and doggy day cares. Since we had just arrived at the park and it was our first time at one, I may have been exuding "anxious vibes" that put Grace on edge to begin with.

After that little spat, my girls did just great. It was Hooper's first visit, too, but he is such a calm, confident dog, he had no troubles at all. Isn't he a handsome boy?


KGMom said...

Katdoc--wonderful tutorial. You'll have us all paying close attention to all the cues our dogs give us.

Susan Gets Native said...

Wow, Kathi!
I always assumed that Hooper was just non-caring and maybe a bit dim-witted. Nothing bothers this guy. But you have shown what a confident, relaxed dog he is!

It's amazing how well he has come through all that he has witnessed in his life. An abusive, neglecting first owner (out in the yard all the time, even in the snow, rarely was feed, no shelter, no love), then in a house with a seriously maladjusted shepherd (the reason Hoop has a bite out of his ear is that he saved Shannon's husband from the shepherd during an attack, which landed the husband in the hospital with a zillion stitches in his hands), and then he comes here to this crazy (but loving) house.
I don't know how you did it, Kath, but you have made me love Hooper even more.
Thank you.

Julie Zickefoose said...

I would be an absolute nervous wreck taking Baker to a dog park. At a festival we attended last weekend, he was strongly leashed the whole time, and he actually tried to pick a fight with a sweet little Brussels griffon--after a thorough sniff-over, he lunged at the griffon. Wha?? You should have seen me hold him when someone came up with a friendly Chihuahua! I can't imagine letting him off the leash in a situation including shepherds, Chow and pit bull. He wouldn't be standing around looking submissive, that much I'm sure of. He'd be lunch.
This is an absolutely wonderful post.

KatDoc said...


I always smile (inwardly) when people say "You can tell he was abused because ..." when in truth, I have seen many dogs who come from abusive or neglectful situations who turn out just great. It seems miraculous to me that dogs who grew up with such bad examples of human behavior can turn around and love the next person they see. So forgiving.

It wasn't till I was studying the pictures of Hooper that I really recognized how relaxed and comfortable he was. I keep going back to the three photos of him with the young Boxer - his face is priceless.

Zick: Actually, dogs onleash are more likely to pick fights or instigate trouble than dogs off-leash. It doesn't seem logical, but it is true. Same thing with a dog on a tie-out chain: Much more likely to bite you than a free-ranging dog. Must be smomething about feeling trapped or cornered.

I think any mentally well-balanced dog could be OK in a group of other well-adjusted dogs. It is the psychos you have to watch out for, just like if you go to a bar. I bet Baker would do great, as long as Mom wasn't sending telepathic messages of worry (which is what I think I did with Grace.)

Glad you all liked this one - it took me all day Sunday to upload so many photos.


Mary said...


This is great and interests me. Thank you!

I have two Bostons of my own and my daughter has a boxer mix and a bulldog. When the four are together at my house, it's all about them :o) I love watching them interact.

I felt sorry for the lost-looking Boston in your photos. He/she needed a little encouragement and protection.

Great post!