Do You Speak Dog?
I'll bet you do at least a bit
Would you guess this dog is happy, sad, or scared?
I was at the dog park the other day informally teaching a dog to lie down on request. The well-meaning new owner of the dog was off to the side repeatedly telling the dog "Down. Down. Down!" I turned to her and, as politely as possible, pointed out that dogs don't speak English. Sure, we can teach them some words. And some have demonstrated a pretty impressive vocabulary with proper training!
But even after a dog has learned what we mean by Sit, Stay, Come, Release, Roll Over, Go to your bed/place/kennel, Leave It, and Roll Over, they'll still frequently communicate with us in their own language. So, it behooves us to learn some of their language just like they have to learn some of ours.
Sometimes it's really easy. That dog above sure looks happy and engaged with the photographer. I'd be willing to bet $50 that the photographer had a treat, a ball, or another toy to capture his attention. But at other times, it can be harder to tell. With a little education on our part, we can know if our dogs are happy, sad, fearful, or playful. When I watch dogs playing, I look for specific body language. When I saw that missing recently with one of my own dogs, I took off after him just as he got to a dog and "attacked" with no provocation. (No injuries, but his bullying still meant that I ejected him from the dog park immediately.) New dog owners are often really worried that their dog is being aggressive when, in fact, she's being completely appropriate with her bark, growl, or display of teeth to tell another dog to stop rude behavior.
There are whole books on dog body language. But I'll recommend something a bit easier today. Check out the cool website called, "I Speak Dog." I like the whole site, but my favorite part is "All About Dogs" where you can see examples of good play, aggression, and various issues like resource guarding, jumping on people, chewing, and digging. This site is really a great resource and I frequently send clients to review specific parts.
Before you head off there, there's just ONE point I'd like to make about growling. Repeat after me:
"Growling is good."
Growling is only communication. It might happen during play (and I growl back when I'm wresting with our dogs). If it happens when a dog is unhappy, I'm always grateful. It's a warning. I'd MUCH rather have a warning instead of a bite. Dr. Ian Dunbar describes taking the growl out of a dog as akin to taking the tick out of the time bomb. If you punish a dog for offering a warning, they may have no other choice but to escalate to a bite the next time they are afraid or angry. I mention this one specifically because I frequently see people scolding their dogs for growling or "snarking" (growling, showing teeth, maybe even a slight lunge toward other dogs) when another dog has done something inappropriate. I tell those dogs, "great job - thanks for being clear and not hurting him."
Full disclosure: I know the person who created the ispeakdog.org. She even included some video of my Juno and Joker in the "Play Behavior" section. I don't receive any compensation when you visit her site - I'm sending you there because the information is accurate and understandable.