Last week, our [Mostly] Wordless Wednesday post caused quite a bit of discussion both in the comments section and on Facebook.
The dog featured showed a variety of body language signals that left many people questioning his intent. Was Jackson playing? Or was something more serious going on?
To be fair, it can be difficult to know a dog’s intent from a still photograph. A video would have given us much more information. Did Jackson spring away, toy in mouth and tail wagging after the picture was snapped? Or did he freeze over the toy, stiff and unmoving?
Regardless, we can gather quite a bit of useful information from the picture. In the moment of time during which the picture was taken, Jackson was showing signs of both resource guarding and high arousal, which would indicate that anyone interacting with him would need to take care. We know that arousal can sometimes tip into aggression, and coupled with multiple signs of guarding, we would need to be doubly careful not to push him past his threshold.
Let’s look at the body language signals that Jackson was presenting one at a time:
1. Working from the back forward, Jackson’s tail is held stiffly over his back. If we were watching a video, the tail may or may not be wagging. A dog’s tail raises with increased confidence and arousal. A tail held this high (Jackson’s usual tail set was level with or slightly below the line of his back) tells us that the dog is very excited.
2. Contrary to popular belief, raised hackles do not always mean that a dog is in an aggressive state. Piloerection (where the hair on the dog’s back stands straight up) can also occur any time the dog is emotionally excited, including when a dog is fearful or anxious. However, Jackson’s raised hackles are another warning sign that he is highly aroused.
3. Much like his tail, Jackson’s ears are held as straight and erect as possible. They are rotated towards the camera, and show that he is very aware of the person standing there.
4. A furrowed, tense brow like this indicates that Jackson is concerned and is holding his muscles tight.
5. If there were any doubt about Jackson’s intentions, his eyes put these to rest. Not only are they hard and staring directly at the camera, but he is also exhibiting whale eye. Were his actions playful, we would expect Jackson’s eyes to be softer and should not see any whale eye. If your dog’s eyes ever look like this when he or she is “playing,” stop. No dog looks this hard during play, and this is a serious warning that you should seek professional help from a certified professional dog trainer immediately.
6. A lowered body posture in which the dog’s front end is crouched down while his rear remains in the air can be a playbow, but it can also be a sign of guarding. Dogs will lower themselves over valued resources. The difference? Look at how tense the dog’s muscles are, and at what the rest of his body is doing. Play bows should look quite loose and relaxed, with soft body language. A guarding dog will display opposite signs, with tense and hard signals.
7. Jackson’s toes are dug into the ground, ready to give him better traction for an upward spring (either at the camera or away) if necessary.
8. A playful dog will often have an open-mouthed smile known as a “play face.” Jackson’s mouth is closed tightly, and the commissure of his lips is pushed forwards.
Taken together, we can see that Jackson is concerned about guarding his toy and is no longer feeling playful. This doesn’t make him a bad dog (in fact, he was a quite friendly and affectionate dog the majority of the time), but it does make him a dog who needs to be handled carefully. Being a young dog, Jackson may be conflicted and could switch back and forth between highly aroused play and resource guarding quickly, which is exactly what was happening when this picture was snapped.
How would you respond to Jackson to neutralize this situation and reduce his guarding tendencies? Please share your training strategies in the comments section below!