Dogs, at times, can be very easy to read. You don’t have to have a degree in dog psychology to decode the anticipatory waggy tail of the Labrador expecting a treat. Or the excited jumping of the Jack Russell terrier awaiting it’s ball to be thrown. But it might surprise you to know that there are elements to canine behaviour which are much more subtle; that a wagging tail doesn’t ALWAYS mean a happy pooch. That rolling onto their back doesn’t always mean they want a tummy tickle, and that by reading the more subtle signs of a dog’s behaviour you can maximise their happiness and mental wellbeing and keep everyone safe too. Here is how your dog can help you understand what they are thinking…
The contented canine
A happy dog is surely the common goal of all dog owners. So how do we measure the results of our efforts? We all know what an excitedly happy pooch looks like. A wagging tail, dancing feet, and a general willingness to play. But how do we tell if a dog is happy in general? If a dog is happy in life? Our dogs must have times of relaxation to recharge, time free from excitation and from worry. These are elements of a happy and contented pooch as well as those excited and playful moments. To tell if your dog fits this category, observe them for the following signs:
- A calm and open demeanour
- A ‘soft’ appearance to the whole body
- Soft eyes and relaxed ears
- A willingness to both play and settle for relaxation
- The ability to relax in your company as well as on their own for short periods
Chronically concerned canines
So what if your pooch doesn’t exude positivity? Perhaps they aren’t terribly secure and settled in general, perhaps they suffer from chronic worry and stress. These are the dogs who generally show very few of the signs of happiness as described above, or who show them relatively infrequently. Long-term stress in our canines also manifests itself in other ways. Destructive behaviours and vocalisations are reasonably obvious signals that all is not well in your dog’s world. There are more subtle indications too. The following list is not exhaustive but should prompt you to consider why your dog is stressed and what you can do to improve their situation:
- Unusual urination habits, perhaps altered colour and frequency
- Periods of intermittent or constant diarrhoea or constipation
- Isolating themselves from members of the family, both two-legged and four
- Increased periods of sleep
- Decreased interest in food
- Licking or scratching at areas on the body
- Excessive excitation upon your return which can indicate separation anxiety
Moments of acute canine stress
While chronic stress can be deeply troublesome for your dog’s mental wellbeing, moments of acute stress can be as well. Situations that commonly cause this type of worry include unwanted attention from an unfamiliar person or children climbing into the safe space or bed of a dog. Circumstances such as these must be avoided for your dog’s sake and for the safety of anyone coming into contact with them. This of course, is especially pertinent where children are concerned. If you witness any of the following behaviours, it is safe to assume that your dog is not comfortable; take immediate steps to remove any stress factor. The list is not exhaustive and therefore any unusual behaviour could be your dog pleading with you to let them be.
- Lip licking
- Avoiding eye contact
- Staring, unblinkingly at you
- Trying to move away from someone or something
- Trembling, shaking or cowering
- Barking excessively
Remember that a worried dog isn’t being naughty, scolding your dog for trying to communicate their concerns will not solve an issue. Never tell a dog off for growling, this is their warning to you and is akin to removing the batteries from your smoke alarm. As veterinary professionals, we know that any dog is capable of biting should they feel there is no other option.
How tails can tell tales
A waggy tail always means a happy pouch right? Wrong! Just to confuse us, a wagging tail is sometimes used as an appeasement tool. As with an exposed belly (when a dog rolls onto their back), wagging the tail might be an attempt to convey a worried, anxious or threatened dog, just like the other signs described above. So how do we decipher which message the wag is carrying and what our pooch is thinking? Look at the whole picture. Is the body tense? Are they lip licking? Are they trying to move away? Much distress and danger can be avoided by not simplifying the mood of a dog by a single observed behaviour and instead taking in the entire scene.
Concerned about your canine? What should you do?
If your dog is behaving uncharacteristically, or if any of the above negative behaviours ring true in your home, bring your dog to us! Ruling out a medical reason is the best initial course of action. Once we’ve established that your dog is well, we will often help you work through the issues by referring you to a canine behaviourist. A little patience, time and professional help now, can pay dividends in the long run so that your dog may enjoy life and you may enjoy your dog.