Understanding Canine Behaviour

two dogs fighting

The ability to read canine body language will help you understand what the dog is communicating, and then implement the proper intervention such as enrichment, socialization, or modification.

Understanding what dogs are communicating through their body language is essential for dog caregivers:

  • It enables them to more accurately “read” the dogs and understand their emotions and motivations for their actions and behaviours.
  • It helps them respond more accurately to behaviour issues like aggression

Body language is made up of dogs’ body postures, facial expressions, and the position and carriage of certain body parts, like ears, tail and mouth position and movement. Knowing the basic postures and what they mean can help dog caregivers deal with problems more effectively and enjoy their dog’s company more fully because they can understand canine communication.

Threats and aggression can be either offensive or conflict-related. An offensively aggressive dog tries to make himself look bigger and more intimidating, whereas a conflict-related aggressive dog adopts a self-protective posture by making himself look smaller and tucking his tail tucked between his legs.

stop sign iconDo not touch, attempt to reassure, or punish dogs showing these postures, because in that moment they are in such an aroused state that they are incapable of learning.

Offensive postures can include:
  • A stiff, straight-legged upright stance
  • Stiffened rear legs, leaning forward with neck extended
  • Tail is stiff and above spine level, just the tip may be moving
  • Direct stare
  • Upright ears, facing forward
  • Piloerection (hackles up) along the top of the back
  • Dilated pupils, eyes fully open, hard eye/whale eye (whites of eye showing)
  • Directly facing opponent (standing square), possibly moving toward him
  • Offensive mouth pucker (only front teeth including canines are exposed)
  • Might be growling
Conflict-related postures can include:
  • Crouching low to the ground, leaning back
  • Head tucked in
  • Tail curved down and tucked between legs, covering the genitals
  • Dilated pupils, eyes fully open, hard eye/whale eye (whites of eye showing)
  • Ears flattened sideways or backward on the head
  • Turning sideways to the opponent, not straight on
  • Open-mouthed, all teeth exposed
  • Lip licking or tongue flicking
  • Stress yawning
Overt aggression, whether defensive or offensive, includes:
  • Biting: snapping air or strike bite
  • Growling
Social can include:
  • A soft eye that is almond or pear-shaped, or squinty
  • Forehead relaxed with no sign of wrinkles or muscle tension
  • Ears are either relaxed (not pinned back) and hanging loosely or facing forward and attentive
  • Mouth is loose-lipped or long-lipped and mouth is often open with relaxed jaw
  • Body is loose and wiggly
  • If tail is moving, it moves in a wide arc or spins like a helicopter
  • Displays play bow posture as an invitation for social engagement
  • Licking people or other animals

SAFER Canine Body Posture

Canine Fearful Body Language

Canine Communication

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