Body posture in dogs is an easy factor to assess in the signaling repertoire, but we too often ignore it. This quick tour
through some common postures involving stance will help you understand what dogs are communicating and what their next movement
Karen L. Overall
When looking at any dog, the first thing that we should assess is how the dog is standing. What's the relationship of the
head to the back or top line? Is the head tucked? Is the hair up on the back or the neck, and if so, where? This matters because
not all piloerection is signaling the same thing. Is the neck stiff, in which case the head will appear pulled in and the
shoulders bunched, or is the neck extended and relaxed, giving a long line? What about the tail? Is the tail up, down, tucked
or curled? Is the tail in motion? If the tail is moving, then is all of it moving or is just the tip vibrating? We need to
know because there are profoundly different implications for these postures.
Associate the movement
Looking at this simple set of associations can provide us with information about any interactions. But for those who will
watch and examine the same dogs interacting over time, shifts in body postures can be indicative of social shifts in households.
This means that the family photo album can hold a lot of clues for understanding problems among family pets in your patient
populations. Let's examine a few examples of single interactions, and then one that tells the story of a developing conflict.
In Photo 1, we are reminded that not all piloerection signals concern, but it always signals information. In this case, the
standing dog is a Rhodesian Ridgeback who has limited choice about how he presents his pelage. Dogs can learn about other
dogs and vagaries of breed, like bobbed tails, but they also learn to interpret another dog's signaling because of congruent
signals given by other body parts.
Here, the Ridgeback's ears are really loose, as are his lips, and the pups are clearly playing. The Beagle is pushing back
with all four feet and giving a deferential grin/grimace, reinforcing the idea that this is play, not a threat. Notice, too,
that although these pups are mismatched in size, their play is equal, and the Ridgeback is not over-running the smaller dog.
In Photos 2 and 3, we see the adult version of a big dog/little dog play. The little Schnauzer is considerably disadvantaged
in size and with respect to signaling capabilities, he has no tail and is fluffy enough that even if he does piloerect, then
it will be tough to see. That said, his ears, which have not been docked, are floppy and relaxed. He has leaned into hind
legs, and he has a broad stance with both fore and hind limbs. If he were being serious, his legs would be stiff and long.
If we look at the Great Swiss Mountain dog, his stance is relaxed as can be ascertained by the fact that he is off balance.
His hind legs are broad and unevenly spaced; little weight is on his right hind leg, and his left fore paw is raised, signaling
that he will change directions.
His neck is out and down—a concession to the height difference—but it is not stiff, and his hair isn't raised. Additionally,
his ears are loose and floppy because this interaction is all about play. Finally, the mouth of the big dog is open wide,
even exposing his teeth. This is because, again, he is no threat and is communicating that clearly by showing all his weapons.