By Christina Russell, President of Camp Bow Wow
Are you listening?
Nonverbal communication accounts for 93% of the way dogs communicate. Plus, while many people assume a puppy “knows he was bad” when they’ve done something wrong, but the puppy is just reacting to our body language and tone. Here are a few tips on how to gauge what your pup is thinking:
- Acting Out/Bad Behavior: Puppies do whatever they can for a reward (food, toys, pets, or any type of attention), including things we may not appreciate, like chewing, barking, and going to the bathroom in the house. These activities are self-rewarding because pet parents are often quick to react to these behaviors, giving them instant gratification.
- Pet parents can help curb this behavior by replacing bad behavior with the behavior they do want. For example, if a puppy is chewing on a table leg, you can walk them away from the table leg and give them something that you want them to chew on, like a bone or toy.
- Tail wagging does not always mean the dog is happy: Typically a slow, stiff, side to side wag with the tail straight up is a sign of an alert dog, not an excited one. A tucked and wagging tail is a sign of nervousness and submission. Happy dogs will have their tail at a neutral level and will wag it quickly and loosely. The best tail is the “helicopter tail,” which is just like it sounds. This is when the puppy wags its tail in a giant circle. That means they are very happy.
- Nipping and barking when at play: When at play, puppies often nip at each other’s faces, feet, and tails and make a lot of noise. While this might seem scary to new pet parents, this is all perfectly normal. Puppies are social learners and often pick up behaviors from other dogs. This is also how they learn how to play appropriately, so it’s important that they get a chance to do so. When a dog grabs another’s muzzle or neck with his mouth, he is showing aggression. The only time an owner needs to remove their pups from a play situation is if a puppy is clearly scared: tail tucked, trying to get away, hide, or appears to be frantic or panicked.
- Deciphering between aggression and overstimulation: If a dog feels threatened, they will often try to flee the situation first, but if they can’t get away, they may growl, bare their teeth, bark, and standing up on their toes with their ears and tail raised to make themselves look bigger. Dilated pupils don’t necessarily mean “aggression;” they can also mean overstimulation, which is common in puppies and often seen before they pounce, even in play. Overstimulation, in the form of fear, anxiety, excitement, surprise or arousal, can also cause puppies to experience piloerection (the raising of the hair over their back and down to their tail – also known as hackles).
- Ears are the barometers of puppy mood: Different breeds adjust the shape of their ears, depending on their moods. If a dog’s ears are erect and facing forward, they are interested and/or possibly aggressive. When their ears flatten against their head, this means they feel fearful or submissive.
- Mouthing off: Generally, when a dog exposes his canine teeth, he is showing aggression or fear. When a dog pulls his lips back horizontally and shows more teeth in a “grin,” this is an appeasement gesture, as is when he administers a licking, lolling tongue.