Last month, as I read through TIME Magazine’s Special Edition “How Dogs Think” on an airplane traveling across the country, I came across an article by Jeffrey Kluger entitled “Decode Your Pet’s Body Language”. Most of the article is made up of four multiple choice questions, in which Kluger gives an example of a dog’s body language, and the reader is to pick what it means. If you read on, the answers are revealed and explained. As someone who knows dogs well, and has been trained in dog-behavior, I was eager to answer the four questions in my head. I got the right answer for all of them, and then thought–everyone should know this.
Body language plays a very important part in interacting with your pet. It is a means of communication, trust, and a way to build a solid relationship with your loving pet. The fourth question in this article’s multiple choice quiz read: “Your Dog’s Tail is Wagging Like Crazy.” The options were as follows: “A. He’s Happy. B. He’s Upset C. It Depends.” This struck me as a particularly important one for dog owners (and really anyone who spends any time around animals) to understand. Kluger sites Carlo Siracusa to explain that the answer is C because one must look at the whole picture. This is to say, look at your context clues! It is an outdated and naive judgement call to see a wagging tail and think, simply, happy dog.
I think tail wagging is commonly misunderstood among people; whether they have a pet or not. A dog’s wagging tail can mean many different things; it is not always an expression of happiness. Sometimes a wagging tail is an indication of stress or unhappiness–especially when coupled with a tense expression, panting, or pulled back ears. It can also be a sign of excitement, which is not always a happy or positive thing, either. A dog’s tail may be rapidly wagging because he or she is over-stimulated and about to run, lunge, or bite.
Understanding animal body language is beneficial to anyone that has a dog. Learning to decode your dog’s facial expressions and body movements is also key in the training process. The better understanding you have of your dog, the more success you will have. If you ask me–it’s all about communication and relationship. Many people will say “I just want my dog to listen to me” and I believe the key to that is understanding your dog’s body language, so that you can communicate with one another. Kluger’s article ends with a very interesting paragraph, inspired by researchers in Budapest, to explain that our dogs understand us better than we think. In fact, when tested, “…animals processed both the meaning of words and the tone in which the words were spoken, using similar areas of the brain that humans do.” Obviously dogs can’t speak. But they do communicate with us, and they do it well if you are paying attention. It has been made clear that they are intelligent and can understand us, so the least we can do is put a little effort into understanding them.