Understanding Your Dog: Dog Behavior

Wed May 5th, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

Before we can begin any handling, it will be necessary to know a little about the dog. How do you recognize certain behavior? How do you tell when he's playing? When is he going to fight or when is he going to run? Why does he act the way he does?

There are 2 areas which influence dog behavior - instinct and environment:

Instinct is behavior which is specific to the species. It is evident in the species just as is shape. Instinct is not learned so much as it is passed down.

Behavior, influenced by environment, is that which is a learned trait, adapted through training, socialization or any other external input or impression.For example: The searching for birds in the sky is instinctual for bird dogs as is the sniffing of the ground instinctual for hounds.

On the other hand, dogs who walk on their hind feet and jump rope, as seen in circus trained dogs, are demonstrating an environmental influence. A knowledge of instinctual behavior will aid in your association with any dog.

Dog Behavior

Territorial Imperative

The concept of space in the animal kingdom is universal. The lion trainer moves his big cats about the cage by this concept. In the dog, the space concept is evident continually and needs complete comprehension by the handler to complement his knowledge and speed learning.

The outermost limits of the dog space is his "home range". This area may be shared with others of the species and it is only lightly marked. In the wild this would be the outer hunting limits. In our modern dog society, it might be just a few doors away or several blocks.

Within the home range is a more protected area. This is the "territorial area". This is the home turf, home ground. This is well marked and defended. It is shared with others of the pack, but seldom is an outsider allowed to penetrate the border without confrontation. Each member of the pack shares responsibility in the protection of the territory.

The "intimate zone" is a personal area around each individual. This "personal area" is penetrated only by personal relations. The mate, or juveniles of the pack, has access to this area, but seldom do other adults of the same sex. Socialization has caused a wide variance in the "intimate zone" rules and they vary as to the dominance level of the dog and his position within the pack as well as the influence of domestication.

"Critical areas" are the inner personal zones. Penetration of this area usually elicits a fight response. This inner space violation can result in grave injury to the violator. Some dogs have a large critical space while others have almost none. Again due to socialization and domestication.

There is a zone from the critical space area to an area between the home range and territorial border. This "flight zone" will be followed if intrusion occurs. Flight will continue until the critical space is violated, then "flight" will turn to "fight".

In some animals such as the grizzly bear, there is a little difference between the "flight zone" and the "critical zone". On entering the flight zone, the bear will turn and move away. However, one step closer might violate his critical space. He will then turn and give chase.

The lion trainer moves in to the lion's flight zone, which causes the lion to back away. Once the lion has moved to where the lion trainer wants him, the trainer steps back out of the flight zone, stopping the lion's retreat.

When duties require the dog handler to enter unfamiliar areas and they are suddenly confronted with a dog, how do they know if he is in the flight zone, territory, intimate or critical space?

If you've ventured into a fenced area, you can be sure you're penetrating the territory. If you are not under a charge by the dog, you probably have not violated his critical space, one more step may, however.

You can sometimes tell what your situation is by the posture assumed by a dog. Generally, this will give a good indication of your predicament. However, caution is called for. Although a dog's body language can be read with a good deal of accuracy, there are some exceptions.

The dog who is raised alone, in a cage with little socialization, may not give "correct signs". They may also be very slight and missed in the excitement.

Oddly enough, the body language of man and dog are similar under stress, both animals posture or try to make themselves look larger. This piloerection, when observed in dogs, is displayed by raised hair on the rump and shoulders. The neck is arched and the head held high. The legs are straight and stiff with the dog up on his toes. This give an impression of height. The tail goes up and stiffens, the tip may wag stiffly at high frequency. During intense threats, the neck may be lowered as the dog points to his adversary. He may also raise one leg and urinate, them scrape the ground like a pawing bull.

Heavy eye contact will usually cause the dog to back off or charge. If his weight shifts backwards, his tail drops a little or his ears drop a little, he's probably bluffing. When the muscles of the face pull back stretching the lips, pulling the eyes and ears back, the dog is giving signs of submission. Submission is also indicated by a dropped or tucked tail, hair hackled and raised up on the neck and back, and an obvious lack of eye contact.

The opposite is the facial muscle drawn forward, lips, eyes and ears pulled into this alert position with heavy eye contact. The lips are raised to display the canine teeth. Tail position is high, stiff and flagging. The tip moves in a rapid motion, while the rest is stiff and high, as if flagging someone.

These are general instinctive signs and the dog may display any or all of them in combination. A balance of aggressive and submissive signs cannot always be measured adequately to determine a level of dominance. A wolf in the wild will display a fairly exacting form, while the domestic dog's body language may have been modified by human domestication and socialization. Experience will determine your ability to read the dog and extricate yourself from such an encounter safely, or reasonably so.

Returning to your precarious position over the fence facing a dog on his home territory is a good time to bring up one additional instinctual response particular to the dog. This is the "chase reflex". The "chase reflex" is a response to flight. If you choose to dash for the fence, you have a 99% chance of releasing this "chase reflex" and the not-so-brave dog will become omnipotent and charge.

Remember, you must read the dog as a whole, just because he is displaying submission signs with his ears and tail, do not disregard the forward body position, short opening in the lips and other signs of aggression. You must read him accurately. Is he avoiding eye contact or is his stare hard, solid and without fear?

Body language is used to increase or maintain social distances by displays or threats or an actual attack. It is also used to elicit play and contact from loved ones or litter mates. By a slight advance or retreat from position, you will cause a visible change in the body language. If on your advance the tail and ears drop and body weight shifts backwards, the dog is probably bluffing. However, when you turn your back, the fear biter may charge in, get a quick nip, then dart away to a safe zone.

The simultaneous ambivalent behavior must be recognized as a mixture of both aggression and submission. One end may be displayed aggression while the other indicates play or friendliness. This can be caused by a paradox between a desire to be friendly, but a responsibility to protect his territory.

In most cases, if the tail is held stiff and high, it is a sign of aggression or a display of dominance. It makes some difference though if the tail is wagging or flagging. A widely swiping, wagging tail indicate low aggression, high alertness such as spotting game or play solicitation.

At the other end of the scale, defecation/urination is a universal canine sign of fear. A tucked tail, ears and facial muscles drawn back, rolling over exposing the stomach and genitals also indicate fear and submission.

Submissive and dominance signs are dependent on the dog's personality and where he is. A dog will demonstrate less dominance in someone else's well-marked territory, but will become very brave and dominant in his own, particularly when he's supported by a pack member. The pack member can be a man or a dog.




  1. A. Two strange dogs meet in neutral territory, circle each other.
  2. B. Smell head, then....
  3. C. Smell genitals and hindquarters.
  4. D. Mounting may be attempted by a dominant male.
  5. E."T" positioning followed by necking where dominant place neck over submissive.
  6. F. Final submission, rolling over exposing genital and/or urinating.