Is My Dog Really Having a Great Time at the Dog Park, or Do I Just Think He Is?
Written by Maria Huntoon, CBCC-KA
In my last post, I wrote about how our dogs must get continuous exposure to people, other dogs, etc over the course of their lives to stay confident and happy. I also stated how important it is to make sure these exposures are positive for your dog to help build that confidence and head off any risk of anxiety and fear (which could lead to aggression).
Since dogs can’t just tell you when they’re stressed, overwhelmed or unhappy by speaking to you, they use their body language signals to convey how they’re feeling. You just need to know what you’re looking for to bridge that communication barrier. If your dog is showing any of these signals at the dog park, he likely isn’t having a good time…
Tail: When a dog is happy, his tail will sway from side to side like a pendulum in a fluid motion. Not all wagging is a good sign! A low, fast-moving tail wag can indicate your dog is nervous. A stiff, high-positioned tail wag can indicate assertiveness, and if only the tip is quivering (think rattlesnake) this can indicate that an altercation can occur if the other dog doesn’t heed this warning.
Mouth: A happy dog will have a parted mouth with a light pant. A closed mouth (may also be accompanied by holding of breath) indicates discomfort and inhibition. Tongue flicks (quick licking of the nose or lips) is a sign of stress. An extremely wide pant that is joined by tight wrinkles at the corners of the mouth and forehead (think Joker from Batman), indicates overstimulation or stress.
Body movements: A comfortable dog will have fluid body movements. If your dog is holding his body stiffly, stretching, or you see tension wrinkles in his musculature, he is tentative and concerned. Jerky movements indicate a high state of arousal and overstimulation - your dog is likely not thinking very clearly about what he is doing (like a “chicken with his head cut off”).
Eyes: A dog can tell you a lot through his eyes. When your dog is comfortable and happy, his eyes will appear “soft”, meaning you will still see the color of his eyes with a small pupil in the center. If a dog’s pupils are dilated and you see mostly black when you look into his eyes, his arousal level is high and it’s easy for him to escalate. If you see a lot of sideways glares and “whale eye” (the whites of the eyes are very visible), your dog is concerned and needs to have the pressure taken off. Dogs do not maintain eye contact with other dogs for very long. If you see two dogs staring at one another, redirect the dogs or put distance between them to diffuse the situation so it does not become an altercation.
Hackles: The hair on the back of a dog’s neck and along his spine will stand up only when he is feeling either concerned, frightened or aggressive.
Avoidance: If a dog keeps to the perimeter just sniffing and doesn’t try to approach the other dogs, this usually indicates a dog is concerned about the other dogs and is trying to avoid an interaction. He may occasionally glance towards the other dogs and then go back to sniffing. A dog who is bombarded by other dogs during this time can easily snap if he feels he has no other way to keep the other dogs away.
Scratching: When a dog gets overly aroused, all the blood rushes to the surface of the skin and so he may start itching and/or shaking his head. A concerned dog may also scratch as a displacement behavior.
However, when dogs are communicating effectively and respectably with one another, they will offer calming signals to indicate that they are not trying to challenge or “rock the boat.” A few common examples:
- Averting their gaze/turning their heads away
- Sitting or laying with their backs to one another
- A play bow (front down, rear end up)
- Approaching slowly and/or from the side (rather than head-on)
About Maria Huntoon
Maria and her dog, Scout
Maria Huntoon, CBCC-KA, has over 17 years of canine experience, 12 of which have been focused in behavior. She served as both a Special Programs Trainer and Regional Manager of the Puppy Program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, where she played a part in helping hundreds of dogs become successful guide dogs. She has also worked in veterinary hospitals and with rescues.
Maria is a certified canine behavior consultant by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, a prestigious council created by animal behavior professionals with high standards for expertise and professionalism. As of 2016, there are less than 200 CBCC-KA's worldwide. You can learn more about Maria by visiting her website: http://www.mghcanineconsulting.com/