Communication is a two way street. You have to try and anticipate what a dog may do in a given situation. If they are tense, hackles raised and tail upright and moving quickly then trouble may be afoot so do a quick u-turn with an upbeat “let’s go!”
The trouble with labels
When looking at a dogs body language it’s important not to get into the habit of labelling. Susan Friedman describes labelling as closing the door to understanding. I read a super interesting book by Lisa Feldman Barrett called how Emotions are Made and in this she describes how she went out on a date with this guy she thought she didn’t fancy, but whilst on the date she had butterflies, had hot flushes so realised she must like him. When she got home however she threw up! She had a bug but attributed these bodily sensations – the heat, the movement in her tummy to romantic feelings rather than what they were – sicky feelings! Similarly with dogs, if they wag their tail we presume their happy, if they yawn we could presume they’re tired, if they lick their lip it may because we have treats but these behaviours can mean different things.. for example lip – licking can be a sign of worry. When we smile it doesn’t mean were happy – we may just do it to be agreeable. We may do it because of escape or avoidance – if I nod my head and smile they’ll go away!
The play bow can be submissive. It can be done to avoid a situation – such as putting the harness on. When a dog shakes off their body when we remove their harness it may be the same way we may shake off when we wear a scarf, and therefore may not be a stress release signal.
Things to look for in dogs
Look at the jaw – mouth closed indicates tension.
Look at the fur – back especially – look at the toes in the case of furry dogs.
Look at the tongue shape – is it panting or curved up?
Look at the eyes – where’s the direction of the focus. Pupils – are they blinking?
Look at the body weight – where is it? What’s happening?
You can use a mirror to see the position of the dog from all angles – not just the front. A harness can influence the way the dogs moving – like a scarf can influence the way we move too.
If the fur goes up it’s arousal of any kind – don’t just presume it’s fear.
Breathing – is it shallow? Are there any other signs such as lip licks, yawning, – if so perhaps get out of the situation
If the body is forward and paw is up it suggests an appeasement gesture to reduce conflict. If they look away they’re less threatening.
Check out the v shape fur on the back of the dogs neck too.