Dog Talk: How to decode ears, tail and wiggles

Schnauzers Ocha, Puer, TehC and Cider with cats Cendol, Nestum and Limau. Photos: Wong Puei Ee

In the park, chatting to a lady who was educating me about a display of roses, we spotted a large English bulldog mix coming towards us.

The dog’s stumpy tail was wagging furiously, and her big barrel body wriggled as she danced from paw to paw. She also panted, tongue lolling out, as she locked eyes with me.

It was an irresistible invitation. I said “Hello”, and when her mum laughed and stopped to chat, I put my hand out.

The bulldog sniffed, scenting Target, Inkie and Tic Tac who had sprinkled my clothes with a fine layer of fur. Then, the bulky body wriggling with joy, the dog licked my hands, rubbed up against me, and made happy little moans.

When I turned to the gardening guru, I was surprised to see her shrink away. My canine friend might have greeted her but her mum saw the nervous fluttering of hands too and so we said a quick goodbye.

When the bulldog and her mum continued their walk, my acquaintance said, “I thought it might bite you.”

We tend to think that others see the world as we do. While I know that the presumption of consensus is a cognitive bias, her fear astounded me. How could she not see what I saw?

When I told her that the dog was friendly, she stared at me with equal astonishment.

Dogs don’t talk the way we do, but if you read tail, ear and body movements, you can see what a dog is thinking.

Dog lovers read the body language without even thinking about it, and as a result they are bitten very rarely. While it is a skill that must be learned, mastering the basics is simple.Schnauzers Ocha, Puer, TehC and Cider with cats Cendol, Nestum and Limau.Schnauzers Ocha, Puer, TehC and Cider with cats Cendol, Nestum and Limau.

Wong Puei Ee, an artisanal dog food chef in Kuala Lumpur and mum to her pack of Schnauzers – Ocha, Puer, TehC and Cider, as well as cats Cendol, Nestum and Limau, is a master at canine body language.

“With my lot it is very easy to see when they’re happy, because we have zoomies,” Wong laughs.

“They start with barking and jumping, run in tight, excited circles and then they zoom off. They hare back again, totally excited, bouncing on their paws.

“A dog being happy shows it with their whole body. Tails are swinging, ears are all over the place, and their whole body is overflowing with happy emotions. The barking is them calling you, shouting for you to join in. It’s chaotic high energy.”

In the absence of wild joy zoomies, ears tell a story. We humans think we’re pretty slick if we can wriggle our ears, but dogs have 18 muscles that allow them to move their ears backwards, forwards, up and down – and to move each ear independently.

While they use their ears for locating sound, there is also emotional context.

Ears moved forward signal interest. Ears that are flat signal concern.

Tails are also vital for communication. A wagging tail is usually friendly. Also, the more energy in the wag, the more happiness. A tail that is up shows interest, and a tail that is down or between the legs signals concern.

“Both tails or ears are important, because they reinforce each other,” Wong notes.

“When the dogs are uncertain, their ears are a bit tense and set back a little. That’s when you check the rest of the body to see the other feelings.

“For example, my Puer who is 12 has become more wary of firecrackers and thunder storms. When there’s noise, she is tense, shifting from paw to paw, with her head turning to seek a place to hide. She has froggy ears that are hard to read, but they will be on alert and tense.

“Also her tail will be down and between her legs. It means she’s scared and needs comfort.”

Wong has beautifully trained dogs, who look to her with trust. With that, and her being well versed in canine body language, she has the foundation to advise and lead them when they’re at a bit of a loss.

“When we’re in a new place and the dogs are uncertain, they stand solid on all fours, with their tails still in a relaxed drop. There is a sense of waiting.

“Also, their ears are straight, ready to listen for my commands. I can tell that means they are waiting for my guidance. That’s when it’s up to me to help them do the right thing.”

While it takes a few years to get to Wong’s level of mastering dog body language, the basics are open to anyone.

My friend in the park was easy to read. Bulldogs have perky ears with a soft fold, nicknamed rose ears, that are tough to read. But the rest of her body worked like a semaphore.

Her busy tail said, ‘I’m so happy!’ The relaxed and wriggling body sent the same message, ‘I’m delighted to see you!’ As for the dancing movement, it was over-the-top joy, ‘Look at this beautiful day! I’m out for a walk! Isn’t life glorious?’

If like my botanical friend you are nervous about dogs, but you want to get to know them, the safe route is to check with the owner.

Don’t worry about being rude. Dog lovers usually love to show off their pets, especially in parks. If you just smile and nod, chances are they will stop, and you can then ask to meet their dog.

Being introduced means you will be accepted as a friend. And while you are petting, you can study the furry body language to tell you exactly what’s going on in man’s best friend’s head.Venus is friendly and social. Photo: Shannon Lam/KL Pooch Resort and RescueVenus is friendly and social. Photo: Shannon Lam/KL Pooch Resort and Rescue

Adopt Me

Venus was born in August 2019. She is spayed, vaccinated and healthy. This medium-sized furry lady is cheerful, amicable and lively. She gets along with everyone, so she is a lovely companion. However, Venus is an excellent climber so she needs a secure property! Interested adopters please WhatsApp Shannon in Kalumpang, Selangor at 016 233 3647.

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