Because dogs are, pack animals by nature, they need to be able to communicate effectively in order to prevent misunderstandings between pack members. All dogs, from Chihuahuas to St Bernards, understand this unspoken language, and it must be extremely frustrating for them when we humans fail to understand what they are trying to 'say'!
A dog's body language reveals how confident it is feeling. When he meets a dog it feels is lower in rank, it will show dominant body language, and when it meets a dog higher in the pack pecking order, it will adopt a submissive posture. As an owner, it is particularly important for you to understand this aspect of dog body language. Your dog should regard you as 'pack leader' and should display submissive behaviour towards you and your family. A dog who acts dominantly towards humans could be uncontrollable, or even dangerous. This is not to say that your dog should be afraid of you - just that it should show a healthy respect.
A wagging tail is the familiar sign of a happy dog, but there are other ways to tell whether your dog is feeling content. A tail curled up over the back is a good sign (if your dog's breed is one of those which can do this!), as are bright, alert eyes. A happy dog's lips are relaxed, and its tongue may hang out of its mouth. If your dog is very relaxed, it may lay down and wag its tail so that it thumps the ground.
But that wagging tail is not an absolute guarantee of a happy dog - sometimes tail wagging can mean confusion or frustration.
A frightened dog instinctively tries to make itself look as small as possible, in order to convince an aggressor that itself look as though it is already beaten, and not worth bothering about. Because dogs are naturally reluctant to attack their own young, a frightened dog instinctively imitates a puppy by crouching and cowering.
A frightened dog may also hang its head, draw its ears back out of danger and put its tails between its legs. This last action also covers the scent secreting glands under the tail, masking the dog's personal smell.
In order to appease an aggressor, a dog may even roll over onto its back, exposing its vulnerable belly. This is the ultimate demonstration that it means no harm.
A terrified dog has staring eyes, with the whites of the eyes showing, and the pupils dilated.
Dogs may also display puppy-like behaviour towards their owners or other humans, as they perceive them as 'top dogs'. Just as a puppy licks its mother's face to ask her for attention, food or grooming, adult dogs may jump or reach up to lick their owner's faces.
If every meeting between two dominant dogs ended in a fight, both dogs would risk injury. To lower the risk of this happening, two dogs of approximately equal status will try to diffuse the tension while still maintaining their 'top dog' status. They do this by using threatening body language, which is also used when a dog feels under threat from a human, and should be interpreted as a danger sign
An aggressive dog advances confidently, staring straight forward with head and tail held high. The fur on the shoulders and back stands erect, making the dog look bigger than it really is - the opposite to a frightened dog's behaviour. The aggressive dog's ears point forwards, showing that it is alert and ready for action, and not concerned about its ears being damaged in a fight. The tail is held high, exposing the scent-producing glands that tell the other dog exactly who it is dealing with!
If the other dog doesn't back down, the aggressor snarls, wrinkles its nose and bares its teeth, revealing how dangerous it could be if provoked into a fight. Every muscle is tensed as the dog stalks forward, stiff legged. At the last moment before attacking, the dog pulls its ears back, to protect them in combat.
A dog who wants to play shows puppyish behaviour, adopting a similar posture to a submissive dog. Its head is held low, back bowed downwards, paws stretched out in front and bottom in the air. The tail is held high and may wag excitedly. This curious posture is familiar with pet owners, and is called the 'play bow'.
What did you say?
Sometimes it is possible for dogs to misunderstand one another, and this can lead to trouble.
The dogs with the 'clearest' body language are those who are shaped most like a wolf - the dog's ancestor. Dogs which look very different from this may have difficulty making himself understood.
For example, floppy-eared dogs, such as Spaniels, can't prick their ears, or flatten them against their heads. If dogs have a long fringe of hair hanging over their faces, other dogs may be unable to read their intentions in their eyes - Old English Sheepdogs, and Pulis, with their Rastafarian-style 'dreadlocks' may be disadvantaged in this respect.
Dogs with long, flowing coats, such as Salukis and Afghan Hounds, cannot raise their hackles, while dogs with naturally short tails, or tails which have been docked, cannot wag them to show contentment, or tuck them between their legs when they are frightened.
Black dogs may appear as featureless silhouettes to other dogs, and may have problems making themselves understood as other canines are unable to see the subtle gestures and expressions they may be making.