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Dogs have moods too—lessons in loving, living with and understanding your dog’s body language

PetSmart Catherine Mabe/PetSmart

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I’m a childless thirty-something woman living a quiet life in the middle of central Phoenix. So the only kids my 18-pound cattle dog mix really ever met were the ones we stumbled upon through our evening walks through the city park. You know the type—they’re frequently found burning off excess energy by spinning furiously around on those human-propelled merry go-rounds and yelling with joy.

But, to a dog, all that fun can seem little more than scary. So, despite my best efforts to socialize him, Ollie wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with positive day-to-day opportunities to interact with children outside of the four-legged variety. Enter into the picture my 8-year-old niece, Jessica, who recently moved to the area.

Jessica’s an exuberant child and budding dog agility handler who immediately wanted to befriend Ollie. My dog, who is now 2 years old, seemed confused, intrigued and always extremely wary of the amorous and enthusiastic ways with which Jessica approached him. Sometimes he’d willingly run to Jessica when she called him; other times, he’d simply look for the nearest rock to climb under. Sometimes it seemed as if Ollie never wanted to the cuddle sessions to end; other times, he’d skulk away from Jessica’s patting with his tail between his legs and his head hung low. She simply never knew to what to expect.

As a result, Jessica (who shares her home with a happy-go-lucky Rottweiler mix with a high threshold for her antics) has determined that Ollie is, put simply, “a moody dog.” I laughed at her accusation, but knew what she was getting at—and actually, “moody” is a pretty good way to describe the dog I love so much.

Ollie can be confident and ready to take on the world, with his tail up and his nose exploring every surface he can reach. He is also a master at fading into the wall, particularly when faced with company he doesn’t recognize. Some days at the dog park he wants to spend hours rolling around with other pups and on other days, he’s content to relax on a bench next to me, watching the fun others are having.

So I decided to research moody dogs by reading through some related articles in Dog Fancy magazine and perusing a copy of Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog by Brenda Aloff, which I had on loan from the library. I learned that dogs communicate with us and with each other in more ways than I thought—barking and wagging aren’t the only ways your dog lets you know how he’s feeling. Dogs are complex and use their body to talk all the time. Here’s what yours might be trying to tell you: 

  •  “I’m stressed out and unsure of what’s going on.” When a dog is stressed, you may notice him quivering, whining or even crying. He will probably have his ears back and pinned down against his head and might hold his mouth open to facilitate panting. You’ll also notice his tail is between his legs. 
  • "I’m anxious or worried.” A dog in this state may lick her lips, pace or pant. Listen for her to whimper, bark (or both) repeatedly. Anxious or worried dogs are usually restless and in motion. The dog’s tail will be held lower than the rest of her body, and will be tucked between the back legs. Anxious or worried dogs won’t make eye contact directly, but will look away, to the side. Sometimes, the fur along the neck and back of a frightened or submissive dog will stand up too.
  •  “I’m confident and friendly.” A confident dog prances with his tail, head and ears held high. His tail will probably also be wagging loosely (But keep in mind, tail wagging isn’t always a signal that a dog is happy—dominant or aggressive dogs may also wag their tails though the tail will probably be held higher and submissive or afraid dogs may hold their tails low while wagging them.). 
  •  “I’m scared.” If a dog is fearful, his ears may be pulled back, the whites of his eyes will be visible and his head will be lowered. Some particularly frightful pups might even try to take cover behind your legs or under a piece of furniture.  
  • “I want to play!” The classic play bow is seen when dogs lower their heads, put their rear ends in the air, and bend their front legs, “bowing” to another dog or even to you. A dog that wants to play may also swat at the air. 
  • “I’m in an aggressive mood.” When a dog’s lips are curled up and she is snarling or barking, be cautious: these are signs of aggression. An aggressive dog’s hackles—the hair on her back (between her shoulder blades) and above her tail may also be raised. An aggressive dog will hold her ears back slightly, against her head. Her eyes may also be narrow and her body will probably be tensed. She may also growl or bark.

Learning to read and understand your dog’s body language takes time, but practice enough and, like me, you might find the process a fulfilling and beneficial one for both you and your pooch. The more you take note of your dog’s movements and note his corresponding moods, the easier it will be to send the correct signals to your pup.

Besides all of that, understanding what dogs are conveying is just plain fun—in fact, it’s become a favorite game for my niece and I. We love to guess the moods of all the dogs at the dog park (while of course keeping an eye on Ollie and the rest of our pack).



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