As humans, we sometimes take for granted this wonderful thing we call the spoken language. The ease with which we are able to communicate important messages to our fellow man is truly spectacular. If there is danger, if we are frightened, if we are in pain, we have words for these things that others can understand instantly and then typically know how to respond. Now for a moment imagine a scenario in which you are in danger or afraid, and the only people you can speak to do no speak your language. What do you do? You would likely resort to some kind of frantic charades. It would probably be frustrating, but in all likelihood the person would be able to get the gist of your body language. Now imagine a slightly stranger scenario in which the only person who can help you isn’t even human and looks on in complete confusion as you babble away in a strange language and contort your body with gestures that would surely make sense to another human, but make no sense to the newcomer.
Welcome to the wonderful world of human dog interaction! Dogs aren’t blessed with spoken language like we are, though they do have a small range of vocalizations with different meaning. For the most part they rely on body language to communicate with other dogs and with their human companions. This body language can sometimes be very subtle making it hard to pick up on. And unfortunately even the more obvious body language is often misinterpreted by us because, as humans, we have a tendency to project human traits on to other animals and even inanimate objects. These misunderstandings can be relatively innocuous, but they are also frequently the precursor to preventable dog attacks. The internet is awash in home videos in which dogs and humans (often children) are interacting in a way that the people think is funny or cute, but the dog is clearly, to the trained eye, giving body language that is saying, “I don’t like this. Back off!” I’m willing to bet that the majority of dog attacks in which the owners say, “She’s never done anything like that. It came out of nowhere,” there were actually many signs that the owner simply didn’t understand.
For the safety of ourselves, our families, and the public, as well as the safety and emotional well-being of our dogs, it is important for us as dog owners to know how to read our own dog’s body language. It is also wise for people in general to understand the basics of canine body language so that you can more safely gauge your interactions with dogs you meet because, unfortunately, not every dog owner knows their dog as well as they think they do.
For a run down on the different types of body language and what they mean, I recommend looking over the diagrams and reading the article linked below.