Body language can be difficult to read especially in pets. The ability to read a pet’s body language is one of the most important skills a veterinarian possesses. Pet owners also benefit greatly from being able to correctly interpret their pet’s body language. However, it is common to misinterpret what our pets are trying to tell us.
Upon meeting strangers or new acquaintances, human beings will often exchange handshakes. Affection between humans is commonly expressed through physical contact. Dogs and cats communicate differently. Through body posture and non-verbal signals, a dog tries to express his thoughts and intentions. Correctly interpreting these non-verbal signals allows us to understand what our pets are trying to tell us.
Though it is a common refrain, dogs rarely, if ever, bite “out of nowhere.” Aggression is used only as a last resort. Looking away, avoiding, or pulling back their ears are common non-verbal signals used by dogs. When these signs are ignored, escalation can occur. A dog may stiffen, stare, snarl or growl in an attempt to communicate their displeasure before actually biting. From an animal’s perspective, aggression is not without cost and could even result in injury or death. If an animal determines they have no other choice, then they may resort to aggression to end a conflict.
Should we punish aggressive behavior in our pets? Doing so may be easy but the question we should ask ourselves is whether punishment is effective. If warning signs are ignored, then escalation may occur. Punishment will not address the underlying cause of our pet’s aggression. In fact, it may cause our pet to suppress warning signals altogether.
Escalation such as biting could result from learned behavior. When warning signs are ignored, pets learn non-verbal signals do not stop uncomfortable situations. They may believe no other option exists. Chances are quite high a dog that bites “out of nowhere” made previous attempts to communicate their displeasure through non-verbal signals which were simply ignored.
It is easy to misinterpret a dog who approaches sniffing and investigating. Often their curiosity is misunderstood as friendliness. A wagging tail does not always mean a dog is happy. It is signaling arousal which is an intensity of emotion. What type of emotion is the question. The body posture of a friendly dog is different from a fearful dog. If their tail is down, ears back and weight shifted backward, they are communicating fear. It is quite possible a fearful dog will wag her tail. An approaching dog who’s wagging her tail, before biting a stranger’s outstretched hand, is in all likelihood fearfully aroused.
When a cat or dog rolls onto their back exposing their belly, a belly rub may be desired. However, this behavior can be misunderstood. Perhaps they are communicating something else entirely. Cats often lie on their back in a defensive posture. This is not an invitation for a belly rub. If a dog is comfortable with the person petting them, she may roll onto her back for a belly rub. However, if she rolls onto her back immediately upon being approached, this is submissive behavior. Perhaps her intent is to communicate fear or anxiety. The best approach in this instance is to call the dog over without leaning or reaching over her so she will not feel intimidated. Rolling a dog over onto his back to give him a belly rub may make him anxious and upset.
Our pets do their very best to communicate their feelings and intentions. It is up to us to consider their non-verbal signals and LISTEN. Though they cannot speak, our pets are certainly able to communicate.