Relaxed Mouth, Ears and Body
Just like you and me dogs have differing needs of social interaction, both with humans and with their fellow canines. Our 'Ask the Dog Trainer' columnist, Michael Baugh, and I have had a number of inquiries about various aspects of the social lives of our dogs lately. Not all of these emails make their way to the blog, but today I'd like to share some thoughts on how I see the state of socialization of our Fido family members these days. Much of this is taken from the dozens and dozens of letters I get from you. Your questions and comments are very telling with regard to the big picture. So here goes...
One of the biggest underlying problems I see with the anti-dog folks is a basic lack of understanding of dogs' body language. My diminutive little Papillon, Oliver, is the most affectionate and sweet little boy ever. Yet I frequently receive questions like "Does he bite?", "Is he friendly?" (Said while his tail is wagging at the speed of light!) and "Is he a nipper?"
I'm no expert, so I'm not here to tell you a lot about how to read my dog, or any other. However there are a few things that go across breeds in general that are good for everyone to know when determining if a dog's behavior is generally safe and friendly:
- Tail position: A horizontal, wagging tail is a common sign of friendliness. Vertical tail positions, whether pointing up or down, do not necessarily reflect friendliness or aggression, but can be seen associated with a variety of social issues. Approaching such a dog may not be a good idea.
- Ear position: When both the ears and the tail are pointed upward, paired with a forward leaning stance, a dog is on high alert. You can't ask him why, so be safe and keep your distance while avoiding eye contact. A friendly, relaxed dog will rarely display these body language signs in conjunction.
- Barking: Barking can only be assessed in terms of its association with aggression when visibly paired with other body language signs that indicate aggression. Barking alone does not mean a dog will bite. It is merely a form of communication.
- Mouth/lips/eyes: An open, relaxed mouth and jaw as you see in Oliver's photo above is generally a reflection of the same attitude toward those he is looking at. Conversely, a tightly-closed mouth, fixed eyes, and particularly curled lips can be a sign that you should keep your distance.
When allowing your dog to socialize with other humans, make sure you've got his back. Let interested greeters know how best to approach your pup, helping Fido learn to receive friendly human greetings with ease. As his owner, your dog will gain social skills with humans faster if you assist by offering tips to those who want to get acquainted. More experiences of a positive nature will equate to better socialization and acceptance of an occasional human faux pas. Often we need the training and support as much as the dogs.