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Body posture in dogs is an easy factor to assess in the signaling repertoire, but we too often ignore it. This quick tour through some common postures involving stance will help you understand what dogs are communicating and what their next movement might be.

Body posture in dogs is an easy factor to assess in the signaling repertoire, but we too often ignore it. This quick tour through some common postures involving stance will help you understand what dogs are communicating and what their next movement might be.

Karen L. Overall

When looking at any dog, the first thing that we should assess is how the dog is standing. What's the relationship of the head to the back or top line? Is the head tucked? Is the hair up on the back or the neck, and if so, where? This matters because not all piloerection is signaling the same thing. Is the neck stiff, in which case the head will appear pulled in and the shoulders bunched, or is the neck extended and relaxed, giving a long line? What about the tail? Is the tail up, down, tucked or curled? Is the tail in motion? If the tail is moving, then is all of it moving or is just the tip vibrating? We need to know because there are profoundly different implications for these postures.

Associate the movement

Looking at this simple set of associations can provide us with information about any interactions. But for those who will watch and examine the same dogs interacting over time, shifts in body postures can be indicative of social shifts in households. This means that the family photo album can hold a lot of clues for understanding problems among family pets in your patient populations. Let's examine a few examples of single interactions, and then one that tells the story of a developing conflict.

Piloerection

In Photo 1, we are reminded that not all piloerection signals concern, but it always signals information. In this case, the standing dog is a Rhodesian Ridgeback who has limited choice about how he presents his pelage. Dogs can learn about other dogs and vagaries of breed, like bobbed tails, but they also learn to interpret another dog's signaling because of congruent signals given by other body parts.

Photo 1

Here, the Ridgeback's ears are really loose, as are his lips, and the pups are clearly playing. The Beagle is pushing back with all four feet and giving a deferential grin/grimace, reinforcing the idea that this is play, not a threat. Notice, too, that although these pups are mismatched in size, their play is equal, and the Ridgeback is not over-running the smaller dog.

Acceptable play

In Photos 2 and 3, we see the adult version of a big dog/little dog play. The little Schnauzer is considerably disadvantaged in size and with respect to signaling capabilities, he has no tail and is fluffy enough that even if he does piloerect, then it will be tough to see. That said, his ears, which have not been docked, are floppy and relaxed. He has leaned into hind legs, and he has a broad stance with both fore and hind limbs. If he were being serious, his legs would be stiff and long. If we look at the Great Swiss Mountain dog, his stance is relaxed as can be ascertained by the fact that he is off balance. His hind legs are broad and unevenly spaced; little weight is on his right hind leg, and his left fore paw is raised, signaling that he will change directions.

Photo 2

His neck is out and down-a concession to the height difference-but it is not stiff, and his hair isn't raised. Additionally, his ears are loose and floppy because this interaction is all about play. Finally, the mouth of the big dog is open wide, even exposing his teeth. This is because, again, he is no threat and is communicating that clearly by showing all his weapons.

Photo 3

Intensifying play

This open-mouth response to rough play is shown in an intensified form in Photo 3. Notice that the Schnauzer has completely turned its neck, also showing that he will relinquish the control of the play bout, at this point, to the larger dog. These two photos elegantly hint at the ballet that is dog play.

Photo 4 shows how posture matters in terms of how difficult it is to get up. The completely relaxed Aussie in the foreground is doing "frogs". While there might be a thermoregulatory component to this behavior, only relaxed dogs will exhibit this behavior because the number of movements and steps necessary to get up is huge. This dog is willing to calmly attend to the desires of the other dog and might be hoping that someone trips over him when by the refrigerator-only once it's open, of course!

Photo 4

Photos 5 and 6 show an adult dog who is 3 years of age in classic and wholly normal play postures with a puppy who is 9 weeks of age. Notice that in Photo 5, the adult is giving the classic play bow, and the puppy is relaxed and stretched out with her upward paw ready to reach for the older dog.

Photo 5

In Photo 6, the adult and the pup are engaging in mutual cheek chewing. This behavior is often ritualized in older dogs and can be used to determine if the recipient is a threat. If they are, they usually intensify the challenge. Here, because this is early play, the challenge is mutual, demonstrating to both dogs that there is no threat, and the actions are truly play. Other clues include the floppy nature of the puppy's limbs, the loose, relaxed ears exhibited by both dogs and the exposed belly of the puppy.

Photo 6

Dogs feeling threatened or closed to social interaction tuck all of their limbs over their chest and belly.

Now look at the same two dogs four months later when the puppy is 6 months of age in Photos 7 and 8. The relationship is already less joyous. The older dog has sequestered all the toys, and the younger dog has turned her head and neck away, while putting her her ears stiffly back as depicted in Photo 7. This is not a relaxed dog, but one who is trying to avoid a confrontation. Examine the face of the older dog. She is staring at the youngster, her face is stiff, her ears stiff and forward, her countenance intense. In a photo taken just after this, the puppy only approaches the toys as the adult dog is walking away. Actually, the older dog was called away, and her entire posture, which is stiff, shows that she is not happy with the situation.

Photo 7

Clear language

Another year later (Photo 9) when the younger dog is 18 months of age and in the midst of social maturity, the body language is clear. The older dog is staring at, and clearly threatening, the younger dog. Notice that dog is occupying more of the couch. The younger dog is looking obliquely away, clearly signaling that she is not a threat. In fact, she is not even sitting down; she is merely perched, another true sign that she might need to flee quickly. Were this not the case, she could easily curl up in that area. As is true for the dog in Photo 4, she would have to go through many more behaviors to leave than she does by assuming this posture.

Photo 8

This photo is an important one because it predicts the future. A few months later, the older dog attacked the younger, rupturing some ocular vessels. Over the next year, the aggression intensified to the point that the younger dog engaged in preemptive attacks whenever she saw the older one and became fearful of other dogs. Separating the dogs allowed them to:

  • remain in the household,
  • become independently happy,
  • have new dog friends and freedom from fear.

These dogs still are doing well, although they are separated. The "puppy" is now 9 years old, and the black Aussie is 12. These are my dogs, and the older dog was born with developmental abnormalities and congenital cataracts that made her blind by 5 weeks of age.

Photo 9

Aggressive signs

Yet, signs of how the black Aussie would act potentially later in life can be found in Photo 10 taken a full year before Photos 7 and 8. Here, as a 2-year-old (notice the short coat that Aussies have until they are about 2.5-3), she is blocking the access of a 3-year-old Tibetan Spaniel who has just been introduced into the household. The Tibbie is standing, her tail is down, demonstrating both concern and withdrawal from interaction. Her left paw is raised, indicating a change in behavior is imminent. She is panting, and she is looking askance (like the Aussie in Photo 9). The young Aussie already was showing signs of what would be almost universal obnoxious or aggressive behavior with respect to other dogs, yet without the context. Because we made excuses because of her disabilities, interpretation of these behaviors would have been muddled.

Photo 10

If we want to understand our patients, then we need to watch them, and both videos and still photos are essential tools in your armamentarium. Buy a camera and start capturing the behaviors of your patients and pets. You will learn the most amazing things!

By Karen L. Overall

VMD, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVB

Dr. Overall has given hundreds of national and international presentations and short courses and is the author of more than 100 publications on behavioral medicine and lizard behavioral ecology. She is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (ACVB) and is certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as an Applied Animal Behaviorist.

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