Summer usually means lots of outdoor gatherings such as backyard family parties as well as big public events. They are fun for us, so naturally we tend to want to share that fun with our dogs. It is important though, to make sure your dog is actually enjoying the festivities as much as you think he is!
I can’t tell you how often I’ve attended a Fourth of July town parade or a large festival like Taste of Tacoma only to see numerous people towing along dogs who look like they would rather be anywhere else. Why would someone subject their best friend to such angst? The answer is that they don’t know that their dog is in fact, miserable! And I’m willing to bet that a fair share of you reading this right now have accidentally put your very own dog in such a position.
Of course, none of us would purposely put our dogs through torture. The problem is that people often mistake their dog’s discomfort as excitement, or they attribute the signs to the heat, or they are simply not paying enough attention to notice the indications of distress. A quick lesson in dog body language can help you immediately identify the signs that will tell you if your dog is truly a “party animal” or more of a wallflower than you thought!
Dog expressions are actually much like our own. A dog that is stressed will have a very “tight” face, often with their eyes wide open and their lips stretched back into a tight grin (as in the picture below on the left). Often the eyes are so wide you will see the whites of their eyes become very prominent on the sides – something we refer to as “whale eye” (as in the picture below on the right). The “worry lines” or wrinkles on their forehead can become more pronounced. Their ears are often pinched at the base and on high alert (breeds with long ears) or twisted backwards (breeds with stand-up ears). Often they are panting quickly with their tongue flat and spatulate – and it’s not just the heat! Worse is a dog that is stressed and has his/her mouth clamped tightly shut – these are the dogs that are actually closer to biting due to the build up of stress.
A comfortable dog exudes “soft” body language. Their ears are loose and floppy (breeds with long ears) or oriented forward with interest (breeds with stand-up ears). Their eyes are soft with no indication of the whites showing. They might be panting, but the mouth is loose and the tongue lolling.
Most people are familiar with the fact that a tail tucked tight under a dog’s body indicates a fearful response. But there are telltale tail signs way before it gets to that stage of fright! One indication you will often see is what I call “question mark tail” – the tail gets a tight little arch a few inches away from the base of the tail before curving back in towards their legs. This is an early indicator that your dog is not enjoying everything around him. Additionally, how your dog is wagging his tail is an important indicator. A tail held up high or over the dog’s back and wagging very tightly and quickly is an indication of arousal, and usually not in a good way.
A comfortable dog holds his tail loosely with nice, big wide wags or it is at least hanging straight in a neutral position.
A dog that is stressed might try to stay behind you, or will hold one of his front feet slightly off the ground. They might “dance” and shift their weight frequently, or they might dart out quickly before retreating to your side. When a dog is extremely stressed, they often refuse treats that are offered.
A comfortable dog tends to stand with their weight evenly distributed over all four feet. They look relaxed and curious about their surroundings rather than franticly “excited”. They solicit attention from those around them and eagerly accept any treats that are offered.
The next time you are tempted to take your best friend with you to a big, noisy, crowded event, give some consideration to the possibility that he might just enjoy the cool quiet of familiar surroundings even more. And if you do bring Fido along, pay close attention to the signals he’s giving you and cut your visit short if you see signs of distress. If you do indeed have a willing party animal on your hands, have a blast with all that summer has to offer!