What Does Puppy Body Language Mean?

Those of us who love dogs, we often spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what our dogs are trying to tell us.  Sometimes we may think we have the signals and body language all figured out only to discover that we’ve misread things entirely.  For instance, have you ever had your beloved dog come and place a paw on your knee and stare deeply into your eyes?  You may think that your dog wants you to pet her.  But after petting her for a few minutes you may find that she’s still not happy.  You figure out later that what she really wants you to do is fill her water dish.  Maybe next time your dog will try a different tactic to communicate to her somewhat slow-witted human what she needs.

If you’re ever fortunate enough to watch a litter of puppies as they develop from the first few days until they are ready to go to their new homes, you’ll notice how a lot of dog body language and communication develops.  Puppies are already wagging their tails as they nurse before their eyes even open.  Puppies start giving little barks when they are just a few days old.  Much of their communication is instinctual, of course, such as crying for their mother when they wander too far from the nesting area, or crying when they are hungry.  You’ll find this same behavior carried out later when your dog barks to let you know he can’t find you or he’s hungry for his supper.  But some other behavior is at least partially learned at this stage, such as bite inhibition and learning to play without hurting his littermates.

Many new puppy owners complain about puppies who nip and bite when they play.  Actually, most puppies have learned from their littermates to regulate their biting and playing to some extent so they won’t hurt each other.  Puppies who bite and play too roughly are temporarily ignored.  If a puppy bites mom too hard she may nip him back, hard enough to make him cry out and sober him up.  If a puppy is nipped a couple of times or ostracized by his brothers and sisters a few times, it’s a good bet that he will learn to moderate his play.  However, when a puppy arrives home with his new human family he usually has to learn these lessons all over again.

In fact, puppies will transfer most of the behavior and body language that they know from the whelping box to their new home.  Why wouldn’t they?  The whelping box and their interaction with their mother and siblings is their only frame of reference.  So, they will whimper, nip, sniff around for places to potty that seem okay to them, and treat people like they are fellow puppies.  At this young age, puppies don’t have much concept of humans as creatures who are different from dogs.  They simply try to fit you into what they already know so they don’t make much distinction in how they should behave toward you.  That means that you and your puppy can have some communication foul-ups as your puppy learns that you are not a dog and he can’t treat your home like a whelping box.

You can help your puppy a great deal during this learning stage by studying his body language.  Learn to anticipate what he might do next.  For instance, learn to know his behavior when he may need to go outside to potty.  Watch for signs that he is sniffing the floor, looking for private areas in the house or flat (such as behind furniture), going back to a place where he’s already had an accident, glancing at the door or even glancing at you.  All of these signs can be indications that he may need to relieve himself.  If you will take him outdoors when he shows some of these signs you may anticipate that he needs to go out.  You may have some unnecessary trips outside, but chances are that you will also prevent some accidents.  You’ll also be improving your communication with your puppy.

The more you watch your puppy and get to know his body language, the better your communication with each other will become.  You can learn to ignore some behavior from the whelping box, and encourage other behaviors.  You can help shape your dog’s behavior and communication skills.  Dogs are incredibly smart and they learn fast, especially when they are puppies.  It won’t take long before you and your puppy have built a strong foundation for communication.

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