I just heard something that needs to be addressed. I got a call from someone that was having some issues about their black lab. I was doing my usual routine of asking lots and lots of questions to discover what the real problems were and what the dog’s possible motivations for the behaviors might be.
The woman describing to me how her dog was acting aggressively toward people but “his tail was wagging . . .”
Ahhhh, every dog trainer has heard this one numerous times and every time it makes us want to scream. There’s no bigger misconception in the human-dog dynamic than the fallacy of the wagging tail. It’s probably not possible to calculate how many people of been burned by thinking the swish-swish of a dog’s tail equals a happy dog.
Any behavior by itself is not a 100% indication of a dog’s state of mind. You have to look at the context the behavior is given before you can make an assumption about a dogs intent. To make an accurate judgement on a dog’s state of mind you need to look at every aspect of their communication. One piece of the puzzle by itself, will only lead to misunderstandings.
Here are the things you need to look at when trying to assess a dog’s behavior:
1. Body language – The stiffer the dog, the more tension in the dog. The more in motion the dog is (the more wiggly) the better.
2. Eye contact – the more direct, sustained eye contact, the more fixated and assertive he is. A dog that looks away constantly is not on the offensive.
3. Distance from stimulus – What is the dog’s position in relation to what’s got his attention? If he’s doing his thing from a distance, he’s most likely anxious or fearful. And if he’s moving forward with out hesitation he’s confident (which could me friendly or ready and willing to prove a point – with the pointy part of his teeth).
You have to look at the entire picture to see what’s going on. Putting your money on the wagging tail is like believing that every person who is smiling is friendly, which is surly not true. Think of the Joker of Batman fame . . . always smiling . . . what a nice, happy chap, right?
Wrong! Think of the next stiff, tailing wagging dog who is staring you down as the canine version of the Joker. He’s smiling at you, but that smile could really just be a dare. A dare for you to make one wrong move.
So please be safe and make sure you’re paying close attention to the entire context of your dog’s behavior when making a decision on his state of mind. That way I won’t have to keep explaining to people why their “happy,” tail wagging pooch just sank their teeth into them.