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Healthy Pets

What Is Your Dog Telling You?

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Is he concerned?

Let’s say you’re outside with your dog, and another dog suddenly shows up on the scene. If your dog doesn’t know this dog, he’s likely to show his concern by stiffening his tail and wagging it in a way that doesn’t wag the body.

“That kind of tail wag says, ‘I’m thinking, I’m assessing,’” Horwitz says.

The wagging tail may go straight up, which shows a heightened alert.

When a little nervous, your dog may draw his ears closer to his head and pant a little faster, or may close his mouth to enable him to sniff to check everything out. He may also open his eyes wider to let in more light.

Is he afraid?

Dog owners often confuse fear in a dog with shame or guilt, says Melissa Bain, assistant professor of clinical animal behavior at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

You come home from work to find your dog has had an accident in the house, or maybe he’s chewed your shoe. You express strong disapproval, giving him a stern talking-to. He reacts by holding his body close to the ground, pinning his ears back, and tucking his tail between his legs.

“He may look like he feels guilty, but he’s actually scared and anxious about what you might do,” Bain says.

Fear of someone your dog doesn’t know looks different.

When a dog is afraid of something or someone unfamiliar that’s coming at him, he’s likely to get into a defensive posture that signals he’s ready to fight, Horwitz says.

It’s likely that your dog will “go rigid and tall, trying to make himself look bigger than he is, and his tail will go up very high and stiff,” she says. The dog is hoping the threat will just go away.

Is he angry?

Maybe not. If your dog tears up your furniture while you’re away, you may think he's angry at you, or spiteful. But most dogs who do that fear being alone, Horwitz says. They’re displaying separation anxiety. Others do this because they don’t get enough attention or exercise. Talk with your vet, or a pet behaviorist, to come up with solutions.

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