Can you read dog (body) language?

Ask the RV Vet

 With Dr. Deanna Tolliver, M.S., DVM
 
EDITOR’S NOTE: I am sorry to report that this will be Dr. Deanna’s final column for us. We wish her well in her future endeavors.

It sure seems that lately a lot of dog people on social media are complaining about other dog people in campgrounds.

One complaint I often see is about owners letting their dogs run up to other dogs without asking the other dog’s owner if it’s okay.

Even if you’re asked, the result can be just as negative. Last week I saw a woman walking a poodle mix, possibly around 30 pounds. The dog looked to me to be in that “alert aggressive” pose while looking from afar at my little dogs. She asked if my dogs were dog-friendly, and I said sometimes, but I don’t let them interact with dogs I don’t know. She didn’t say another word but walked quickly away. I called out after her, “I’m sorry, please don’t take it personally!” But she didn’t turn around.

At least she asked!

I think most people who let their dogs run up to other dog(s) without asking are just wanting a pleasant experience, for their dog and themselves: a little cuteness watching doggie interaction, and possibly some conversation with a fellow RVer. But after spending more than 25 years interacting with people and their dogs, I’m convinced that most people can’t read dog body language.

And that often leads to unwanted doggie interaction that begins with posturing and ends with aggression.

Dog body language can be subtle, or it can be “in your face.” Dogs learn most of it before they’re a year old, depending on what they gleaned from their mom, their siblings, and after they left their doggie nest.

A big problem for humans is that we sometimes draw the wrong conclusions about dog behavior. For example, if Dog A sees Dog B approach, and Dog A is standing very still and very slowly wagging his tail, one might mistake that for friendly behavior. The reality is that Dog A is sending a message to Dog B that says, “I might be friendly. Depends on how you approach me. Right now, I’m a little nervous.” Dog A’s owner might be thinking that because her dog is wagging his tail, he’s fine with the whole situation. See how confusing it can be for us mere humans?


Interactive Dog Toy. With this “toy,” you hide treats in the secret places and your dog has to figure out how to get to them. For example, the cones can be knocked over to reveal the treat. I bought one of these last week, with few expectations that my little dogs would have fun with it. But I was surprised and delighted when my old Chihuahua took less than a minute to find all the hidden treats! She gets very excited now when I bring this out. An accompanying brochure tells you how to train your dog to find the treats if they don’t “get it” right away. There are different levels and sizes for all dogs. Have fun!


“In your face” behavior is usually easily recognized: teeth that are bared and straining at the leash to get at the other dog.

But another behavior that’s often misinterpreted is yawning. I saw many yawning dogs in clinical practice and it wasn’t because they were sleepy. Yawning can be a displacement behavior in dogs, signaling stress or nervousness.

If you see a dog that is very still but alert, that dog is a little nervous. Or if you see “whale eye,” where the dog turns his head away from the other dog, but still keeps looking at it (showing the whites of his eyes), that dog is nervous.

A dog that approaches your dog that is walking a little stiff-legged, ears alert, staring eye-to-eye, and slowly wagging his tail, is a dog that you need to quickly take your dog away from.

Let’s play!

Some signs that a dog is a happy dog include play bowing, fast and possibly circular tail wagging, and relaxed facial expression.

Being able to read dog body language is important if you take your dog walking around the campground and/or to a dog park. It’s equally important that you read your own dog’s signs as well as other dogs, to keep altercations at bay. If you’re unsure about another approaching dog, don’t be afraid to tell the other owner that you don’t want your dog to interact with hers.

A website that explains dog body language in more detail is this one

If you’re REALLY interested in learning more about dog body language, I highly recommend this webinar sponsored by the ASPCA. I found it very informative with lots of photos and videos that show all kinds of doggie behavior. 

Here’s a blog I find very interesting: the writer is a veterinary behaviorist. Click here.

If you are unfortunate enough to have a dog owner in your campground that insists on letting his dog run loose, please consider telling the campground owner what a dangerous situation that can be and strongly encourage them to tell the offender. Both dogs and people can get hurt by unrestrained, overexcited dogs, no matter how “good” their owners insist they are.

“He won’t bite!” was usually the last thing I heard an owner say before I got bit at the animal hospital. Trust your instincts and don’t take chances with your dog while you’re out walking or at a dog park.

Dr. Deanna Tolliver has been a full-time RVer for more than three years, although she has been an RVer for several more. She travels with a fifth wheel and a one-ton dually truck. Her travel companions include four small dogs and a 36-year-old Yellow-Naped Amazon Parrot. She has a BS and MS in biology and zoology, respectively, and a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Missouri, Columbia. She owned a veterinary hospital for many years and recently handed over the reins to a new owner. 

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