Dogs have an amazing ability to communicate with humans. Even though we are different (and not very closely related) species, thousands of years of living and working together has led to dogs to develop remarkable skills at understanding what humans are trying to tell them. According to studies, the average dog understands somewhere around 165 human words (http://www.animalplanet.com/pets/how-many-words-do-dogs-know/), and certainly many more non-verbal human messages, and are thus more accomplished at understanding humans than all but the most intelligent fellow mammals, such as other primates and dolphins (plus a few very intelligent bird species like parrots). Unfortunately for them, however, humans are not nearly as skilled in understanding what dogs are trying to say to us.
The best way to comprehend what your dog is saying is by studying how dogs communicate with each other, in both wild and domestic settings. Unlike humans, where most of our communication is verbal, with considerable support from non-verbal cues, dogs largely communicate non-verbally- growls and barks have their role, but most of what dogs say to each other is conveyed without sound. A significant part of this 'body talk' work is done by their tails and their eyes.
Tails tell tales
Doggie tail communication is conveniently obvious, assuming the dog hasn't been partially or fully deprived of this tool by tail removal, whether through surgical means (which is almost always pointless, and is considered by many to be a polite form of mutilation) or selective breeding. One of the major functions (if not the main function) of the tail is to tell other dogs what is going through their furry head, and provide clues on how the other dog should relate to them. The simplest tail cue is vertical position.
The height of a dog's tail relative to the ground is a direct barometer of their level of confidence in themselves, indicating where they think they fit in terms of dominance in any situation. The stiffly raised tail, straining to the highest position possible, says 'I am rightly the top dog here, and you better recognize it'. Like a human strutting into a packed room with head held high and a superior look, it can lead to conflict, by provoking other dogs with similar high opinions of themselves in terms of dominance to challenge the high-tailed individual. These challenges often reveal false bravado, with one or more parties quickly dropping their tail a notch when presented with another dog (or dogs) that they recognize as bigger and badder in terms of rightful dominance. Even if there is no backing down, it doesn't necessarily indicate an imminent fight; often two or more high status dogs will keep matching 'high as physically possible' tail positions, do some butt sniffing (the doggie handshake), and come to a mutual 'we're both top dogs, and don't need to fight over which one is a bit fancier' decision. This sort of reaction reflects just how well developed and essentially peaceful healthy doggie societies are, which have evolved to minimize conflict among members (especially within the pack), as pointless fights, and resulting injuries, damage the pack’s hunting prowess, to no real purpose. This sort of posturing followed by an 'I'm OK, you're OK' (or rather, 'I'm incredible, you're incredible') conclusion is a great way for highly dominant dogs to relax and have some fun. My late dog Friday, who was very dominant and impressed with himself, would only play with other dogs after engaging in this posturing. When we would visit the dog park, he refused to even contemplate playing with his 'lessers', but if he could find another confident, high-tailed super dog, and after doing the usual formal side-by-side measuring up and mutual rear examination, he would lighten up and play with relaxed abandon (but only with other sufficiently impressive specimens). Just below this 'high as possible' tail position is one slightly lower and much less stiff, representing a dominant dog that is relaxed and not interested in issuing challenges. This 'I'm pretty incredible, but I don't feel the need to prove it' message should make for a similarly relaxed owner, as dominant, and therefore highly self-confident, dogs in this state of mind rarely cause problems.
A tail that is not as high, and basically horizontal to the ground, can indicate several things: a dominant dog that is feeling a bit unsure, a dominant dog that is trying to make lower dominance or fearful dogs feel less threatened, or a middle dominance dog simply conveying that they are a middle of the pack sort of furry person. Again, these are usually signs of peaceful interaction, with no challenges being issued, or signs that a dog is feeling nervous. As the middle of the pack sorts are very into the ‘go along, get along’ approach to life, middle tails usually mean no worries for anyone.
When the tails drop, to a low, but not between the legs position, the dog in question is likely feeling a bit uncomfortable. This is often not a sign of serious issues, just a middle dominance dog that wants to send a strong ‘Hey, I’m not starting anything, Mr. top dog’ message, and avoid trouble. If it is occurring in a dog that habitually holds their tail high, it may be a sign that the furry party is feeling majorly unsure, and may react badly if provoked. Or not, as fleeting feelings of concern may disappear immediately (leading to a middle or higher tail) if the source of the nerves (for instance, a dog showing high dominance) modifies their behavior (for instance, dropping a super-high tail to something lower to state ‘OK, I see you’re not challenging my greatness, no worries’).
Of course, the greatest sign of emotional distress in tail terms is when tucked between the legs. This shows some combination of significant submission and fear, and generally represents a dog on the edge of going to extremes to mitigate their fear, which can take forms from aggressively lashing out, to running away, to showing their belly to further emphasize their submission. Dogs that show a tucked tail often are not happy campers, and need help mitigating whatever is causing them to feel such regular fear. Extreme submission, which always involves fear, is neither pleasant for the dog or a safe attitude to take around other dogs, who regard such a complete lack of confidence as dangerous, and are prone to actually attack such dogs.
Eyes, windows to the furry brain
Dogs also communicate heavily using their eyes, which, unlike tail position, is little understood by most humans. Here the meanings are a bit vague, with some degree of uncertainty on what exactly any particular instance of ‘eye talk’ means.
One form of eye communication which is quite clear is the stare. To a greater or lesser degree, the action of fixing a pair of front-mounted eyeballs (in other words, sight based predator eyes) is a threat, basically a statement that ‘I am considering eating you’. It isn’t coincidence that various creatures, especially insects like moths, make use of large, dramatic, paired eye spots to deter predation. The hope of this defense is that whatever is about to eat the moth will see the eye spots as a pair of predator eyes, sizing up the attacker to make IT the imminent meal. Dogs will react similarly to a fixed stare- if you are ever conducting an introduction between two dogs, and one party or the other (or worse, both) are staring daggers at each other, something will have to give promptly (such as one or the other looking away, or perhaps one party going into a play bow, and basically saying ‘I’m just pretending to want to eat you, I actually just want to play’), or there will be a fight. The fixed stare, when involving an unfamiliar human, especially if there are subtle signs of tension in the dog, is similarly a ‘red alert’ type situation. Again, this is basically a warning saying ‘yes, I am sizing you up for a bite, so you better not make me feel more threatened’, and will not end well if the look continues and the person makes the mistake of taking action interpreted as an escalation of the threat.
However, with humans, dogs will sometimes stare without truly meaning ‘I’m gunning for your butt’; if their overall body language is relaxed, and especially if it is a dog with which you have a good relationship. In this case, a ‘stare’ appears to just be some mild dominance, if it is held for considerable periods of time. Basically, something like ‘I am not sure I completely respect you, but at the same time, I’m not necessarily looking to revolt, either’. It is generally a good idea, especially if you don’t have the best pack leader hold on your dog, to always ‘win’ any of these staring contests- if you catch your furry person staring you down, stare back until they do two other eye actions that show submission, not dominance- looking away or blinking.
Any breaking of eye contact, through either looking away, or by blinking, says both ‘I’m not threatening you, really’ and ‘you’re in charge’. When the blinking becomes overexaggerated, long eye closings interspersed with relaxed eye contact, it is something akin to ‘you are my dear leader, I am comfortable and happy with you being in charge’.
Dogs are often hard for humans to read, where dogs generally easily read familiar humans. By paying attention to your furry person’s eyes and tail, and applying some basic knowledge, you can usually obtain some handy insights into what’s going through their doggie brain, to mutual benefit.
(© Paul Randall, 2017)