Dogs, like humans, are individuals with their own style, personality, accent, motivations and philosophy on life. Some are laid back, others highly strung; some are fearful, others brave; some live to work and others spend every moment relaxing. It is what it is, and you’re never going to change your dog’s fundamental personality. It’s what made you fall in love with her in the first place and bring her home with you. But, your dog’s personality will affect the way she views the world and reacts to her environment and understanding dogs behaviour will let you find the best methods to help your dog adjust to her new home and integrate into the family. To do this, you need to learn how to speak dog language.
The Pack is the Family
Before we look at some typical behaviours, it’s important to remember that a dog is a pack animal. Living as part of a family unit and abiding by its rules is hardwired into the dog’s psychology. What this means in practice is that your dog expects a strong Alpha leader, a well-defined hierarchy and behavioural boundaries to be already established. When she joins your family, all she needs to do is work out where she fits in the order of things. If you want your new dog to transition smoothly into your family and avoid behavioral problems, you need to behave like a pack leader–set house rules, establish routines, be consistent and maintain discipline.
Let me give you an example of what can happen if you forget the pack hierarchy:
When my husband and I first brought Finbar home, we decided he should sleep in a basket in the kitchen and never be allowed upstairs to the bedrooms–under any circumstances. For the first two years all went well and each night we would say “in your bed” and Finbar would take himself off to the kitchen and curl up on his blanket. And then one day our daughter got chicken pox. She felt very poorly and begged us to let Finbar sleep in her room. We said ‘NO’ and her eyes watered and tears rolled down her cheeks and across the chicken pox spots. The emotion tugged at our hearts and we caved in and from that moment onward Finbar expected free run of the house. What was most interesting is the change in attitude that he developed: he no longer saw himself as the bottom of the pack, but elevated to the same level as my daughter and it was then he began to copy her. When she sat on the sofa he would try to sit on the sofa too, when she went to bed he would curl up on her bed too. We tried to break this new habit and return him to the kitchen to sleep, but without success. He now saw this as a step backwards, a punishment and he began to howl. After a few sleepless nights, and complaints from the neighbours, we couldn’t stand the noise any longer and decided to compromise. We moved his basket out of the kitchen into her bedroom. On that day, we lost a little of his respect and a whole load of training effort.
Within the pack, dogs will communicate their emotions using a variety of physical forms. Not only to reconfirm their position in the pecking order, but also to challenge, warn, defend or show fear. So, let’s now look at some of the common emotions your dog will have.
Recognising When Your Dog is Anxious
There are many reasons why your dog may be stressed or anxious: going to the veterinarian, thunderstorms, riding in a car, being faced with aggressive behaviour, children who play rough with her. When you are stressed, you tell your friends and seek comfort from them. When your dog is stressed she does the same…she tells you!
Here’s how you can recognise your dog is feeling anxious:
- Pacing back and forth often along the same route.
- Shaking herself after a stressful situation e.g. exiting a car or being set back on the ground after being on the veterinarian examination table
- Whining or barking e.g. when you leave the house.
- Yawning for an extended length of time and when she would not naturally be tired.
- Licking excessively often in one patch.
- Shifting her weight onto her back legs or cowering.
- Putting her tail down between her legs.
- Flattening her ears back.
- Looking wide-eyed and blinking.
- Shedding her fur more than usual.
- Panting when it isn’t hot or there is no reason to be excited.
- Ignoring the threat by focusing attention on something else.
The best way to deal with your dog’s anxiety is to remove her from the cause of her stress. If this isn’t possible, e.g. during a thunderstorm, then cuddles, comforting words and a dose of Rescue Remedy may be the answer.
Seeing the Early Signs of Anger
If a dog growls, you can be pretty sure that she is angry. Bearing her teeth shows you in clear terms that she has the means to bite if the action that is angering her doesn’t stop. But growling is not the only way that a dog will express anger–there are some more subtle signs too:
- Burst of rage, especially at another dog.
- Ears flatten, mouth stays firmly shut and the head lowers.
- Peeing on your things or chewing them up, way past the puppy stage.
- Licking her lips and nose, especially when she is being manhandled too enthusiastically by over zealous children.
- Avoiding eye contact.
- Disobeying commands that have been well learned beforehand.
- showing the whites of her eyes.
- Avoids being touched by you.
- Groaning e.g. when she has been banished to the kitchen to prevent her muddy paws getting all over the carpet and she just sees it as unjust punishment.
- Wagging her tail stiffly.
Some signs may indicate different feelings–yawning, tail between the legs, whining may show fear, anxiety or anger. To determine which one it is take a look at the circumstances that triggered the reaction, then remove the source of the problem.
We spoke earlier about dogs having a pack mentality and needing to know their place in the pack hierarchy. It is natural for them to show submissive behaviour to let others in the pack know if they intend to challenge their authority or submit to it. In the home, your dog will show her acceptance of you as her alpha leader in a few different ways:
- She will lie down and often roll onto her back exposing her tummy.
- She will lower her gaze to avoid direct eye contact.
- She will move her ears back and try to look smaller.
- She will lick another dog’s chin (or yours if she can reach).
Some dogs will be more submissive than others, that’s natural, but keep an eye out for more extreme behaviour such as hiding, in this case you may want to help build up their confidence a little.
On the flip side, you will occasionally get a dog that wants to challenge you for the position as Alpha. They may snarl, bare their teeth, push you, disobey you. Keep calm, focused, firm and consistent and claim back your position as leader of the pack.
Happiness and Contentment
A dog is a jug half full type of animal. When she is well cared for, knows her boundaries, has plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, she is likely to be happy. Dogs express their happiness in a few different ways, but most of all they look relaxed and may even smile.
The tail, always a good indicator of mood, wags sometimes to such an extent that the whole body wags along with it. Happy dogs eat well, like to play and are always excited to see you, and show their love for you, even if you have only gone out of the room for a minute or two. Also, a happy dog is less likely to be destructive, even on those days when they are left alone in the house.
Needing Love and Attention
When you live in a busy household it can sometimes feel that you are being pulled in all directions. Your boss, your partner, your children, friends and your dog all need a piece of your time. Often something has to be left out of your schedule and maybe that is your daily dog walk or playing with the pup in the garden. Dogs of any age need physical and mental stimulation and if it is lacking they are likely to get the blues.
And they show it in the same way that humans do:
- Sleep all day.
- Won’t eat.
- Put on weight.
- Start misbehaving.
- Stop greeting you at the door.
- Have toilet accidents indoors.
- Don’t want to play.
Dogs won’t stay sad for long if you give them a little attention, schedule a daily walk and give them lots of cuddles.
How Your Dog Shows She Loves You
There will be times when you wonder if your dog really loves you or if she just wants food. You need to look at her body language to find the answer.
- When your dog sees you and wags her tail in an excited way you can be sure she loves you.
- Waggling her eyebrows when she looks at you.
- Glancing at you every so often to make eye contact.
- Sleeping next to you or snuggling on the sofa.
- Leaning against you.
- Taking something that smells of you such as clothes, shoes or slippers.
- Copying your actions. We’ve all seen those cute YouTube videos of the dog doing yoga with his owner. This is a pure show of affection.
Understanding dogs behaviour is not that difficult if you keep your eyes open. Understanding their language will help you to keep your dog contented, ward off destructive behaviour and comfort you with the knowledge that your best friend loves you unconditionally.