Reading your puppy’s body language

Dogs have always communicated with each other by using body language. This involves facial expressions, body postures, noises and scents. Dogs will use their mouth, eyes, ears and tail to express emotions. By learning how to interpret your puppy’s body language, you can interpret your puppy’s intentions.

Signs of aggression or submission

If your puppy is feeling brave or aggressive, he’ll try to make himself larger by standing tall, with his ears and tail sticking upright. He’ll also push out his chest and raise the hair on his neck and back. He might also growl and wave his tail slowly.

On the other hand, a submissive dog will try to make himself appear small and act like a puppy. This is because an adult dog will “tell off” a puppy but not attack him. Submission will take the form of a sideways crouch near to the ground, his tail held low but wagging away. He may also try to lick the face of the dominant dog or human. He may even roll on his back.

Your puppy’s tail

Most of us recognize that tail wagging is a sign of friendliness and pleasure, but the tail can indicate other moods, too.

The normal way a dog holds his tail varies from breed to breed but generally speaking, a tail held higher than 45 degrees to the back expresses alertness and interest.

If your puppy’s tail is waved slowly and stiffly, that’s an expression of anger. If it’s clamped low over his hindquarters, it means your pet is afraid. An anxious or nervous dog may droop his tail but wag it stiffly.

Your puppy’s eyes

If your dog’s eyes are half closed, that’s a sign of pleasure or submission, while eyes wide open can indicate aggression.

In the wild, dogs stare at each other until one backs down or makes a challenge, so you should never attempt to outstare your puppy, especially if he’s nervous.

Your puppy’s smile

Submissive dogs and some breeds such as Labradors often open their mouths in a kind of lop-sided “grin”, and indeed, it is a sign of friendliness. But when lips are drawn back tightly to bare the teeth, that’s aggression, make no mistake.

Wanting to play

If your puppy wants to play, he’ll raise a paw or bow down and bark to attract attention. Or he might offer up a toy, or bound up to another dog to get him to join in a chase.

How your dog sees you

Your puppy will watch you to read your body signals more than he will listen to you, and he’ll quickly learn what you’re feeling even without you speaking.

If you want to improve communication with your puppy, you can improve upon your own body language. For example, crouching down with arms opened out is a welcome sign while towering over him and staring is a sign of threat.

How your puppy learns

Your puppy will learn very quickly, so it’s important that he learns how to behave properly right from the start.

Dogs learn by association, so if your puppy does something good, reward him. Then the action is much more likely to be repeated. But the reward must be linked to the action, so he must be rewarded quickly, within a second or two. The reward itself can be a few kibbles of puppy food or praise, or both.

Your puppy needs to be taught what he can and cannot do. Some harmless behaviors can be ignored, but potentially dangerous ones need to be handled immediately by interrupting the behavior with a sharp “no” to get his attention — be sure to reward him when he stops and pays attention to you. Shouting or hitting will not help your puppy learn.

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