Most people, even those who do not spend a lot of time around dogs, understand that a wagging tail means 'friend' and a growl means 'foe-' right? Well, maybe, but there's a lot more to it than that! Understanding your dog's body language and the cues which he is giving is vital to building a healthy relationship with your dog, so read on to find out how to decode the often subtle signals which your dog uses to communicate on a daily basis- and maybe learn something new!
If your dog is wagging his tail, then he is likely happy, secure and having a good time. He may be pleased to see you, ready to play, or just enjoying his day. If your dog wags his tail at the sound of your voice, this indicates the strength of his bond with you and a general sense of wellbeing in your presence. However, dogs wag their tails in different ways to indicate different emotions- the tail wagging across the mid section of the rump and slightly raised generally indicates friendship, while the tail raised high over the rump in an unusual position and wagging slowly can be a sign of both interest and suspicion, and so should the dog should be approached with care.
A dog that is wagging his tail and barking simultaneously may appear to be giving off conflicting signals- the tail wagging usually indicates a happy, friendly demeanour, and yet barking is often read as aggression. Effectively reading the signs that the dog is giving off in this case means that you need to take into account the other cues which he is displaying, such as the position of the tail- when wagging in a 'friendly' manner as described above and with otherwise alert yet relaxed body language, your dog is likely simply displaying delight and excitement at seeing you. Raised hackles, a snarling mouth and a slowly wagging 'warning' tail accompanied with barking and a defensive posture can be an indication of aggression.
An open mouth is not necessarily indicative of aggression in the dog- lots of dogs run about and play with their mouth open and of course pant to cool down, so this is normal dog behaviour. If the dog is wrinkling his lips to bare his teeth, especially if accompanied by growling or a low warning rumble coming from inside the chest and a tight posture, this is an important warning to heed.
Growling is almost unanimously a defensive or aggressive reaction, and a growling dog should be treated with great care and respect. You should never approach a growling dog that you don't know, or attempt to handle them or move into their personal space. Some dogs growl as part of rough and tumble play, either at toys or sometimes even at their handler without ever acting on it. As you get to know your dog, you will be able to differentiate a warning growl from a playful growl, although you should always discourage inappropriate growling in your dog, even in play, in order to teach your dog appropriate behaviour, as a situation can easily escalate if not checked early on.
The tail tucked under the rump and a low, submissive body position where the dog tries to make himself appear as small as possible and slink away is indicative of submissive or timid behaviour in the dog, and a sign that something has alarmed or frightened him. Remember that a timid dog can potentially snap in aggression or fear, so try not to back them into a corner or approach them suddenly- instead, speak calmly and soothingly and try to encourage the dog to come to you.
A dog with his ears flattened back against the skull is often an early indication of building aggression, and can be followed by growling or defensive behaviour. Approach a dog with flattened ears and a watchful, wary stance with care.
Your dog's ears pricked up usually indicates alertness, and interest in something going on around them. Decoding your dog's mood in this situation requires you reading the other cues in their body language, and working out what they are watching or interested in at the time- such as a game of ball, potential prey or a bowl of food!
Whining can have many meanings and causes, including excitement, boredom, pain and unhappiness. Again, look at the situations playing out around your dog to work out the root cause- if someone has just picked up the lead and called 'walkies!' this should be fairly clear!
Rolling over into the prone position and exposing the stomach may appear cute and make you think that your dog wants his tummy rubbed, and this may well be the case. But baring the stomach and neck area is a very submissive act on the part of the dog, and indicates yielding superiority to another person or dog, and is often seen in play when introducing new dogs to each other as they work out their own pecking order and place in the hierarchy of the pack.
Jumping up is generally a sign of excitement, and means that your dog is probably happy and ready to play when accompanied by other cues such as a wagging tail. However, jumping up should not be encouraged, and should ideally be trained out of a puppy or young dog while they are most receptive to training. It can be a source of extreme annoyance for most people to have a dog jumping up and marking their clothes or possibly even causing injury, and so you should discourage jumping up with a firm 'no' and positive reinforcement upon compliance.
Along with tail wagging, eye contact and vocalisation, the posture of your dog is one of the most important indicators of their mood and possible behaviour. Belly low to the ground and a tight, hunched up posture without eye contact is likely to indicate fear or submission- standing alert indicates interest, and raised hackles, taut posture and hyper alertness, especially when accompanied with growling or strong eye contact can indicate imminent aggression.
You should never attempt to 'stare out' a dog or make prolonged eye contact- this is usually taken as a sign of aggression, and may result in either inappropriately submissive behaviour from your dog, or an aggressive response in turn. Looking a dog directly in the eye is considered rather 'rude' in dog language, and if a dog is making determined eye contact with you or directly staring, this may indicate a possibly aggressive demeanour.
Get to know your own dog, and the cues and signals which they give off, in order to judge their feelings and mood and react accordingly. Never approach a dog you don't know, or approach or touch a strange dog without permission from the owner. This is not only rather rude, but potentially dangerous as all dogs are different and some dogs can be rather shy and easily intimidated, or may be snappy. While it is to be hoped that any dog prone to aggression would be muzzled in a public place, this does not mean that you should consider an un-muzzled dog or one running lose to be friendly or likely to welcome your approach. Similarly, dogs are muzzled for many reasons- sometimes as a simple precaution to prevent them injuring perceived prey while running lose, and a muzzled dog is not necessarily always an aggressive one. Again, take your cues from the dog's owner or handler first, and then 'read' the signs displayed by the dog himself before approaching.