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Understanding Canine Body Language - Tail Wagging & More

It’s an old cliche that dogs are man’s best friend. But did you know that dogs are also humankind’s oldest friends? Cats started living with us around the time we invented farming, but dogs have been with us for much longer than that. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of canines and humans living and working together since the days of cavemen. It’s no surprise, then, that we seem to be able to understand each other pretty well. Many pet owners will tell you they often know exactly what their dog is trying to tell them with nothing more than a glance, a facial expression, or a bark.

The question is still up for debate as to which came first. Did dogs and humans learn to communicate with each other after spending so much time together, or have we been best friends for thousands of years because we can understand each other so well? Either way, it amazes us to think that after all that time, people are still learning new things about canine body language and other communication.

  1. What does it really mean when a dog wags their tail?

One of the most obvious examples of canine body language that most people think they understand is the simple tail wag. Were you told as a child that a wagging tail means a dog is happy? Well, that’s correct - some of the time. A better way to translate a tail wag is to say that it denotes excitement. If you watch carefully at the dog park, you might see a lot of tail wagging going on right before a fight breaks out! Some dogs, when they’re being forced to do something they don’t want to do (like go to the vet or have a bath), will sit and wag their tails. They’re clearly unhappy, but they are still excited - although in these cases, the excitement might be better described as anxiety.

As you get to know your dog, you’ll find that their tail is often an indicator of their emotional state. This varies from breed to breed and even from one dog to another, so it’s hard to say what every motion can mean. Most canines keep their tails at a neutral position, level with their spine or slightly drooping, when they’re relaxed. When the tail rises up higher, it can indicate excitement even before the wagging starts. But huskies and malamutes are known to curl their big bushy tails up to keep it out of the way while they’re running. This counts as a neutral position for them.

A tail between the legs is usually a sign of fear or submissiveness. But a stiff, wagging tail can mean the same thing. Context and reading other body language clues will help you know for sure what your dog is trying to communicate.

  1. What does it mean when a dog’s hackles are raised?

First of all, what are hackles? This word refers to the hair along the top of the dog’s spine, from the back of the neck, between the front shoulder blades, all the way to the base of the tail. Some dogs will raise these hairs as an involuntary response. This reaction is similar to goosebumps in a human, where hairs on part of your body will raise up straight. In humans, this usually means fear, anxiety, or that you’re feeling cold. Raised hackles in a dog usually means they feel threatened, anxious, excited, or upset. Raised hackles don’t always mean that a fight is about to break out, but it often means you should be ready for your dog to react.

  1. Can dogs smile?

This one may surprise some people, but yes! Dogs that live in the wild don’t usually smile, but when they are raised by people that smile often, dogs can learn to smile too. It almost looks like a human smile: the corners of their mouth tug upwards, their mouth will usually be open wide, and sometimes their eyes will be half-closed. It means just what it does in a human: happiness or contentment.

  1. What do your dog’s ears tell you?

The way a dog’s ears are positioned can tell you a great deal about their state of mind. If their ears are pointed forward, it usually indicates concentration on a task, such as searching for something. Ears pointed to the sides or slightly back are often signs of a relaxed state. If your dog’s ears are all the way back and flat against the head, it usually means fear or aggression (these two emotions are often linked). Some canine breeds, like a Welsh Corgi with their large pennant-like ears, seem to be telegraphing a great deal of information with their ears. But even dogs with droopy ears like a Beagle or Cocker Spaniel will give you clues to their state of mind by moving the base of their ears up, down, forward and back.