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She worries dog has a screw loose

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POSTED February 8, 2015 8:17 p.m.

DEAR DIDI: I am terribly confused about my dog’s intentions.  He is a German Shepherd mix and is 1.5 years old.  He always seems very happy with his tail wagging yet he got into a fight at the dog park for the first time this past week. Luckily, no one was hurt but we were completely taken by surprise. He was wagging and looked happy, then lashed out at the dog he was meeting. Does this mean he has a screw loose? -Scared Doggy Mommy

DEAR DOGGY MOMMY:  I sure wish we could put dogs in a chair and have a talk with them about what they are thinking.  Since they don’t have a verbal language or process information the same way humans do, we only have one method to figure them out.  Observation.  Behaviorists spend thousands of hours observing dogs in large varieties of situations and can extrapolate that certain canine behaviors result in certain actions.  I always warn people that just because a dog is wagging his tail does not necessarily mean he is happy. The angle of the tail, the degree of swing, and the speed of the wag, all tell us something different.

The tail is just a small part of how a dog tries to communicate with another dog.  The tilt, twist and movement of his ears are also very telling of his mood.  Dogs can also communicate by standing their hair on end down their neck and backs. This is known as piloerection.  Stiffening of muscles, slowing of movements, lowering of head, eye contact or lack thereof, all communicate pretty clearly what a dog is feeling.  Luckily, German Shepherds are one of the easiest breeds for reading body language. 

Take an active interest in observing your dog at various moments in your daily routine. What are his ears, tail, hair and vocalizations look like when you are playing with him?  Notice how those body parts change when he thinks he is in trouble for something.  What is his body language when he is nervous or scared?  If you really take note in normal situations how he carries himself you will soon be able to read him like a book!  Until you have a better grasp on your dog’s behavior and body language, I don’t recommend allowing him to be at the dog park.  I doubt he has a ‘screw loose’, but he may have some rude dog manners that need to be addressed.

Don’t feel badly, most humans don’t know how to tell if their dog is happy, confused, depressed, in pain, anxious or being aggressive until it is too late.  Anyone who is interested in learning more can attend my free lecture on Thursday night, February 12, in Manteca.  It will begin at 7pm at the Manteca Historical Society (600 W. Yosemite).  We will be discussing body language and basic dog behavior.  I will be showing a variety of pictures of different breeds displaying similar body postures and discussing their meaning.  We will also talk about how to handle yourself if confronted by an off leash, unattended dog.  Which actions mean your dog loves you and which ones mean he thinks he owns you?  Bring your questions and come have some fun learning how to read your dog!  -if you have a question for a canine behaviorist email it to Didi:

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