What's my pup saying?
Do you know what your pup is trying to tell you with their body? Do you know what they're telling that dog across the street? Is their play with other dogs going well or just being tolerated? I have seen a lot of wonderful pet parents misread body language so I've wanted to write this blog for a while. Luckily, I have some terrific pictures that I think will go really well with this topic.
The first thing we need to talk about is the idea of arousal. Arousal is simply your dogs energy. High arousal could be due to having a lot of fun and being excited. High arousal could also be due to a perceived threat. Your dog being focused on something or having a lot of energy in response to a stimuli is not good or bad, it's a state of being.
The second thing we need to understand is the idea of threshold. Being under threshold is to be calm, relaxed, chill. Being at threshold is being at the end of your rope. You're about to snap, but you haven't yet. You can't really handle anything more on your plate right now. Over threshold is when you've run out of coping skills. You can no longer manage the situation effectively. You may cry or yell or slam a door. The same applies to our pups. We want to keep them under threshold, calm, and happy!
It is our job as the humans, as the pet parents, as the responsible party, to pay attention when our dog is talking. Sometimes they use their voice, but they always use their body. Now, it is **much** easier to read body language when you **know** the person talking, right?? Have you ever had that super sarcastic friend who always offends people on accident, or the friend who has a really dry sense of humor and a lot of people "don't seem to get her." Pups have a personality too, and what seems to be "yellow behavior" for one might be typical and normal for another. Let's look at chip and Jelly.
Jelly is stiff. We can't see her face, but her body is not "lose and wiggly." Her tail looks stiff, her body looks stiff, and her ears are back. Look at Chip. We can tell that his tail is wagging, but a wagging tail does NOT mean "happy." It can mean happy, but it can mean a lot of other things too. His tail appears to be wagging fast, his ears are back, his mouth is closed, his eyes are wide (do you notice how you can see the white of his eye? that's called 'whale eye'). These dogs are stressed. They are not playing. They are communicating with each other AND WITH YOU (ok, with me, I'm the one who is right there taking the pics) and it's our job as humans to hear what they're saying.
What happens next?
They've moved a bit. I didn't crop this pic as much because I want to show that there are dogs playing in the background. This is a typical inside play session where the dogs are running around, playing, and communicating. We can see that both Jelly and Chip have their tails high. This is a sign that they are both alert, or have a higher arousal. Jelly has some tail wag happening, and her mouth is open, which is a good sign. Closed mouths indicate stress. Chips ears are not as far back (which is good), his eyes are not as wide (which is good), and Jelly looks like there might be a little whale eye, but not a lot. Dogs in the background look relaxed. Apollo has his mouth open and looks relaxed, and the pups wrestling on the floor aren't giving Jelly or Chip a second thought.
We're still moving in a circle around each other, both tails are still high (high alert or arousal), it looks like Chip is looking away (he's telling Jelly that he's not a threat) and they're not nose-to-nose (a good sign).
So this entire interaction happened in a matter of seconds, and didn't lead to anything of any significance, they both walked away from each other and went about having a great time, but it's important to know what your pups body language is telling you. Since I was right there while this display was happening, I could easily interrupt with an "ah ah" or calling one of them over for an obedience cue. I can also walk between them, which would give them both space and break up any tension developing.
There are a lot of charts out there that show you different types of body language and it's important as a pet parent to familiarize yourself with what your dog is telling you and the other dogs around. Is it OK for two dogs to wrestle and tackle each other?? Well, yes. Is one dog doing ALL of the tackling? Well... that could be an issue. Is one dog doing ALL of the chasing... well that may not be a game. Pay attention to the chased dog to see if he goes back for more when the chasing stops. Are they biting? Ok... that can be part of play. Are they taking turns? Ok. Is someone holding on, shaking their head, or leaving puncture wounds?? Not OK. Is one dog whimpering? Not OK.
Dogs have different play styles and different tolerance levels. Just like we may let a close friend get away with something that we would not be OK with a stranger saying or doing, dogs may let their close dog friends be more rough than they would let a strange dog, so get to know your pup, get to know their play mates, and familiarize yourself with dog body language so you can help advocate for your pup as needed, and feel more confident that your pup is engaging in appropriate play with their friends.
Check out Blue (black and white) and Nova (yellow gold). What do you see here? Blue is in a play bow. That's a clear "I want to play!" Novas body is lose and curvy. They're having a wonderful time.
What about Blue and Fynnley?
Blue is on the ground (from a play bow). Fynnley is stressed. His tail is stiff and high and he's looking away. How Blue responds will influence how Fynn responds. If Blue gets in his face, Fynn may become more stressed and closer to threshold. If Blue communicates that he's not a threat and just wants to play, Fynn may relax and play with him. They're talking to each other though and letting the other know how they're feeling! Get to know your pup and how they communicate, get to know your pups friends and how they communicate, and be an active participant in their games so that you can be a part of the conversation!!