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Healthy Dogs

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Dog Body Language

Putting It All Together-The Whole Dog continued...


When your dog is alert, he looks intense and focused. He stands upright with his weight centered on all fours, his ears are up and forward, and his head and neck are erect. He holds his tail either in its natural position or vertically, possibly even over his back. His tail is rigid and immobile. His gaze is directed toward whatever he‘s detected. His mouth is typically closed. He might growl or bark. The hair on his shoulders or back may or may not be raised.


When your dog is excited, he looks as intense as he does when he’s alert, but he might also adopt a playful demeanor. His body is ready for action. He looks natural in size, but his weight might be centered over his rear legs as he prepares to move. His ears are up and his tail is held high, and it may or may not wag. He looks at the individual or object that’s the source of his excitement. Excited dogs often hold their mouths open, and they might bark.


When your dog is aroused, you might have a hard time distinguishing it from when he’s alert or excited. The only time it’s useful to know the difference is when the arousal pushes him closer to feeling frightened or aggressive. An aroused dog almost always has his hackles up. However, just about everything else about his body language depends on whether he’s feeling scared, uncertain or angry. His body may look normal-sized or larger, his ears might be flattened to the side or held forward, and his tail might be held low, in a normal position or high. He may or may not be looking directly at an individual or object. Sometimes there’s nothing in the environment that’s obvious to us, but a dog can be aroused by a sound that we can’t hear or an odor that we can’t smell.


It’s fairly easy to detect when your dog’s feeling playful. His body movements are jerky and bouncy. He might bounce around in exaggerated twists, turns and leaps. He might dodge around you, paw at you and then take off running to invite a chase. Or he might just jump on you and start mouthing. Dogs enjoy a variety of play styles, including chase games (in which the dog is either the chaser or the chasee), rough-and-tumble (wrestling or tackle) games, and games of “keep-away” with an object, like a toy or stick. Almost all play is interspersed with the characteristic “play bow” that’s common across all dogs. When your dog play bows, he bounces into position with his forelegs on the ground and his hind legs extended so that his rear sticks up. This signal is extremely important because so much of dog play consists of aggressive behaviors and dominant postures. The play bow tells a dog’s playmate, “Anything that comes after this is play, so please don’t take it seriously.” Some dogs also show a “play face,” a happy facial expression characterized by a partially open mouth that almost looks as though the dog is smiling. A playful dog might also growl or make high-pitched barks.

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