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Learning your dog's body language: Targeting


Many people misread their dog’s body language; I see it on a daily basis. I have clients that come to me because their dog is “friendly” one second and biting the next. The problem here in most cases, is that we are reading their body language incorrectly. My clients see a wagging tail and think their dogs are happy and playful, I see a whole different scenario.

In an attempt to explain their body language, I have posted some photos of what you need to look out for. I will explain in detail, the body language you are seeing in the following pictures as well as what you are not seeing.

The first set of pictures here are an example of targeting from a rescue we rehabilitated and adopted out.

Picture 1. Relaxed Targeting:

Here his body is relaxed; notice his top line is slightly curved down. He does not display any tightness in his body at all and if you were to touch him, he would be very “soft”, meaning he would move into your touch and you could move him easily with almost no force. His legs are not braced or squared off; meaning they are relaxed with the toes pointing out. He is also not “puffing up” or putting his chest out. You could move him by simply touching him. His ears are relaxed but slightly forward, not forced forward.

Another sign that he is relaxed is that he is panting. If he were stressed and panting, his tongue would be wide at the end and hanging long. Notice his tail is level to his body; at the time of this picture, it had been wagging in a sweeping motion. The tail can tell you a lot about your dogs’ mood. A level or low sweeping tail is a happy tail! A rapidly wagging tail is a nervous dog and just the tip of the tail wagging means something is about to happen! Here his head is not tilted downward and he is almost carefree in his look. This is a typical stance of a dog that is showing interest in something.

Picture 2. Extreme Targeting:

Now here, notice how tight his body looks! His top line has gone from relaxed to straight. His body is so tense you would really have to try hard to move him and if you touched him, he would feel very “hard”; meaning his muscles are tightened. His legs are now braced and squared off. Notice how his front legs are together and facing forward, and his back legs are almost straight and no longer bent at the knee. He is now leaning into his front end and “puffing up”. His mouth is now closed and his head is tilted down. I call this the angry professor look! You all know what I mean. You’re in class and you are talking, you look up and there is the professor looking over his glasses at you. This is a clear example of a hard target, his head is pointing down and he is looking straight down his nose. His ears are now forced forward. Many people have a hard time telling the difference between ears that are forced forward and relaxed forward. Look closely at the two pictures. In picture one, they almost look like they are facing outward. Here they are pushed forward all the way. In this picture, his tail is tightly held up and not wagging. If the picture had been taken from the front, you would notice slight forehead wrinkles. In some dogs, these wrinkles are very pronounced during a target.

Picture two is a typical stance prior to lunge. This dog happened to be extremely dog-dog aggressive. Two seconds after this stance, he had an explosive reaction towards the dog on the other side of the fence.

Some dogs will also raise the hair on their back. This is very important to pay attention to. If your dog’s hair only stands up on their neck and shoulders, this is a threatening manner. If, however, their hair is raised all the way down their back, this is a fearful manner.

I have had people insist their dog is “mean” when they are approached by another dog. They tell me their hair stands up and they bare their teeth or snap at the other dog. When I ask them where the hair stands up on the dog, they generally tell me from nose to tail. I then ask how the other dog approached. The normal answer is the other dog rushed in and greeted face to face. Their dog was not being “mean” but acting out of defense fight drive. They were fearful of the rude approach and tried to protect themselves.

Dogs have different drives that they act on. In defense, they have fight or flight. If your dog is on leash and they are fearful of another dog, they cannot go into defense flight and run away. This means if they feel unprotected by their owner, they will resort to defense fight to protect themselves. Correcting a dog that is fearful and soft, can be a big mistake and usually advances the aggression.

If your having trouble with dog-dog aggression, please contact a behaviorist. Make sure they understand body language, the level of different drives, and how to change drives in your dog. Every dog is different, but they all share the same drives. Understanding their body language and which drive is higher in your dog, will help make rehabilitation more effective.


Tara, Brandie, Amanda & the “Pack”

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