Not long after adopting Capri, I was introduced to the writings of Patricia McConnell. I didn't know much about dogs at the time, and assumed all there was to understand about them was "wagging tail means happy" and "growling means angry". Oh, no. There's so much more to them than that!
Like people, dogs experience a large range of emotions and moods. They also are quite capable of experiencing mixed emotions! Ms. McConnell's books are easy to read but also are very good at showing you how to read your dog's body language so that you know exactly what he's feeling. She also clarifies common misconceptions that people have about dogs. For example, let's take that wagging tail.
Did you know that a dog might wag his tail when he's angry? A measured waving from side to side, with the tail raised higher than the dog normally carries it is a danger sign. Look at this short video of an angry dog momma defending her puppies, and watch her tail.
But the most important thing to know about dog body language in my opinion is muscle tension. McConnell taught me something that I sensed intuitively with dogs but had never consciously thought about. When a dog is annoyed, he will tense up. I think that's the key to really knowing if the wagging tail is a danger sign or a welcome sign.
Dogs also tense up when they're terrified. I hope I don't need to tell you that a terrified dog is a dangerous dog. If a dog feels threatened, and doesn't think he can run away safely (leash aggression is exactly one of these situations), he will try to attack. Dogs also tense up when angry, like when resource guarding. Notice how the golden in this video tenses up just before snapping at the puppy who comes too close to his food bowl. (By the way, please don't let this happen with your dog. Give them their own space to eat without interference from anyone or anything. Learning confidence that their food will never be taken away from them goes a very long way toward making a secure, happy dog!)
Next to general muscle tension, the next biggest signal to watch out for is "whale eye". McConnell explains it aptly by asking us to imagine watching a scary movie. You don't want to watch but you're too scared to take your eyes off the screen. Dogs do exactly this: turn the head away but keep the eyes firmly planted on the thing they're afraid of. When they do this, you can see the white part of the eye on one side. It's a good indication that the dog needs space.
"Eyes are the windows to the soul" is true for dogs as well as people. Have you ever seen a dog look at you with a hard stare? Intimidating, isn't it? Or have you seen a happy dog with sparkling eyes? I fell head over heels in love with Capri the day I was in the backyard with her and noticed her staring at me. If you've ever played with a kitten, and seen the look in the kitty's eyes just before pouncing, you know the look Capri had that day. Staring straight at me, stepping very slowly closer, her eyes said "I'm going to eat you!" But I instantly recognized that as a little bit of prey drive and a whole lot of playful mischief. I turned and started to run, she tackled me in two strides (she was fresh off the track at the time!), and we instantly bonded over our new game.
Lastly, I want to come back to the mixed emotions that I mentioned at the beginning. I think most people don't realize, or don't believe, that dogs have mixed emotions. That's a problem because they certainly do, and it leads to misunderstandings. A dog that's abused can love and fear his abusive master at the same time. A shy dog can be both curious and afraid. Dogs are often angry and afraid at the same time. When they feel mixed emotions they'll give off the body language of both emotions simultaneously. For example, the angry/fearful dog will be tense, growl, show whale eye and wag his tail lower than he normally carries it (because he wants to tuck it but anger makes him also wag it). Here is a dog with mixed emotions. Can you identify what they are?
If you'd like to learn more about dog emotions and body language so that you can better understand the pups in your life, I very much recommend these two books by Patricia McConnell: