We all love watching dogs play with each other, and most people instinctively know when dogs are being polite or when things are getting out of control. But sometimes it’s hard to tell, especially with certain breeds. When a Rottweiler is restless, they may not show it, whereas a German Shepherd is likely to announce all their intentions to the world.
Some of the most interesting things about our canine companions are their differences in temperament, breed, and behavior. Of course, they are all individuals first, but they are also members of a race or mixture of races, as well as a species. Depending on what they were raised to do, they communicate their feelings and intentions differently.
When reading dog behavior, try to take everything into consideration: body type, ears, mouth, eyes, and tail. Because dogs are social animals, they need to communicate with their family as well as with other dogs and people. Some breeds are much easier to understand, while others seem to speak a different language.
Consider the Labrador retriever. This breed was bred to cooperate closely with human beings – to bring game back to hunters. When hunting was necessary, it was a valuable behavior, saving hunters time. For this reason, Labradors tend to be very connected to their owners – and extremely communicative. Almost all Labrador keepers know the feeling of a wet nose under their arm, poking and poking to pet, often with a wildly wagging tail. Labs telegraph their feelings – you know when a Lab is happy. The labs also have boundless, enthusiastic energy, which they needed to work all day, often in very cold water.
Border collies are also communicative, but they can be harder to read, at least until you get to know them. Their piercing gaze aims to control their “flock”, be it sheep, geese or people. Because of this instinct to latch on to other creatures, a border collie can look very threatening when he isn’t at all.
Another thing that hinders canine communication is the appearance of different breeds. A Chow Chow may think he is conveying information, but his mane is likely to interfere with his intentions and he may very well be misunderstood. Dogs that are all one color, especially black, have a harder time signaling their intentions. Wolves naturally have a “mask” – their eyes are distinct from other parts of their muzzle. In fact, their muzzles are often a different shade from other facial features. These colorations make it much easier for them to communicate their feelings and intentions to other wolves. Our Nordic breeds like malamutes and huskies have the same kind of faces, but many other dog breeds also have contrasting colors that make communication easier.
When we cut dogs’ tails or cut off their ears, we obstruct their communication skills; it’s much harder to see a wagging tail stub than a long one (by the way, a wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean a dog is friendly. A restless dog can also wag its tail, although that’s a different type of stir than a happy one).
The next time you visit a dog park, pay attention to how the dogs look and how they communicate with each other. It’s fascinating how quickly some dogs seem to pick up on other people’s language. It is also extremely useful to know when your dog has had enough or when he wants to continue playing. Dogs continually communicate with their bodies, so be sure to “listen.”
The Marin Humane Society contributes Tails of Marin articles and welcomes animal-related questions and stories about people and animals in our community. Go to MarinHumaneSociety.org, Twitter.com/MarinHumaneor email lbloch@MarinHumaneSociety.org