When talking about the psychology behind the behaviour of dogs, an important aspect to consider is body language. A dog, whilst able to vocalise using noises such as barks and yelps, cannot actually use words to tell a human how it is feeling. Therefore, in order to communicate with humans as well as other canines, a dog will use a set of signs that lets others know how it is feeling. Whilst these signals are indeed displayed physically, they are an intrinsic link to a dog’s psyche helping the dog to illuminate its state of mind.
Communication is an aspect of dog psychology that holds perhaps the highest amount of importance. Behaviour of a dog can be directly linked to its interpretations of a certain situation or exchange. For each different type of behaviour there is a certain set of signs that a dog will implement in order to display its mind-set.
Some signs are much easier to read than others, the signs of aggression, for example, are quite easy to spot; ears flat and pinned back or erect and pointed forwards, lips pulled back to show the teeth, snarling and looking at someone or something with its head turned to side but the whites of the eyes showing (known as the ‘whale-eyes’). Other signs are not so easy to read; a good example being calming signals that dogs use to diffuse a potentially heightened situation. These can include circling the ground, looking away, distracted sniffing, lying down, licking of the lips and moving very slowly and deliberately.
A dog’s tail plays a huge role in how it communicates with others; it has a variety of movements and positions that are specific to a dog’s disposition. If the tail is tucked between its legs then it can mean that the dog is scared, fearful, anxious or submissive. If a dog is on high alert then its tail will be stiff and pointed upwards; a dog that is confident of its surroundings will have a tail that is up and wagging in slow movements from side to side.
Reading Body Language
Body language is essential to the subject of a dog’s behaviour as if it is understood and read properly by the owner, then it can help to modify certain behaviours from happening. For example, if a dog starts to show signs that it is fearful or anxious of a situation and the owner reads these signs, then the owner can remove the dog from that situation and avoid the possibility of the dog becoming aggressive or submissively urinating.
Certain parts of a dog’s body language can be extremely subtle to both humans and other dogs. In order for a dog to learn the subtle nuances of communicating with others (especially dogs) they should be properly socialised as a puppy. It is widely believed that a critical period of the learning process for a young dog is between the ages of seven to sixteen weeks, meaning that socialisation is particularly important at this period in a dog’s life.
It is essential to note that each and every dog is an individual and as such they will learn to communicate based on their owner. Therefore, not all dogs will perceive body language in the same way.
Anthropomorphism is something that can often cause humans to not understand a dog’s body language and as a result lead to a breakdown in communication. This is when we think that a dog’s motivation, thought process and understanding are on the same level as our own. If an owner can avoid projecting their thoughts and feelings onto their dog, then learning how to read their pet’s body language will become a simpler task.