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How To Read Your Senior Dog’s Body Language

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I might date myself here, but one of my favorite games as a child was charades; I played with my grandma. Using nothing but body language, Grandma still managed to play with limited mobility. It’s pretty cool when you think that dogs are always playing charades with us.

Dog body language is how canines communicate with us. Your senior dog will use his entire body to convey a message to you. Effective communication can reduce misunderstandings that might lead to bite behaviors.

Daryl Conner of FairWinds Grooming Studio in Appleton, Maine, told me that she’s learned how to read the body language of dogs after 30 years of being a professional pet groomer. And she says she continues to learn. But she has noticed that some pet owner’s misinterpret their pet’s behavior.

“Even though they live with the pet every day,” Conner says, “they sometimes cannot tell when the pet is clearly showing it is afraid or is about to engage in some aggressive behavior.”

A canine’s language is very sophisticated and includes the tail, mouth, ears, eyes, coat, body posture and vocalization. It is instinctual, and your senior dog is well-versed in it. You can be too, because it is never too late to understand what your senior dog is trying to tell you.

Communicating With The Tail

A wag is a wag is a wag. Or is it? Dogs wag their tails for many reasons. A happy wag is when the tail moves in its natural position. A scared dog’s tail will wag lower, possibly even between the legs. A belligerent wag is higher or wags stiffly. As your senior pet ages and arthritis sets in, it can affect the bones in the tail as well. A stiff wag may also be indicative of pain.

Communicating With The Mouth

A happy dog’s mouth is closed or just slightly opened if he needs to pant. A scared dog’s mouth will be closed and lips pulled back a bit.

An open mouth with exposed teeth may be a submissive grin or a sign of aggression. Look at the muzzle to help you decide which. A wrinkled muzzle usually accompanies aggressive behaviors.

Communicating With The Ears

Ears can “set” on the head in many ways. Be aware of the normal position of your dog’s ears, as this indicates relaxation. Ears that sit higher than usual or point forward or back could be part of the body language of a belligerent senior dog who is trying to make himself as large as possible. A frightened senior dog, however, tries to make himself as small as possible; the ears lie flat against the head or out to the side.

Communicating With The Eyes

Eyes that appear either larger or smaller than normal indicate that your senior dog is scared or stressed. He may also squint his eyes to show submission or pain.

If your senior dog is looking directly at you and is relaxed, he’s hoping you will take notice and play with him. Senior dogs still love playtime, but it may be for a much shorter period of time. On the other hand, if your senior dog is looking directly at you and seems tense, he may be fearful.

A senior dog looking away from you is demonstrating submissiveness. Beware if your dog is looking at you from the corners of his eyes and you see mostly the whites of the eyes. This is called “whale eye” and usually leads to biting behaviors.

Communicating With The Coat

A frightened dog sheds much more than normal. And fur that stands straight up (hackles raised), may indicate fear, anger, nervousness or excitement.

Communicating With Posture

A happy dog’s body looks balanced; he is not leaning in any direction. In a play bow, the back end is up, while the head is lowered. A dog in a play bow is neither making himself larger or smaller. An arthritic senior pet may be unable to fully play bow.

A submissive senior dog cowers or makes himself as small as possible. Whereas an antagonistic dog tries to be larger, sometimes extending his legs to appear taller. Arthritic senior pets may be unable to fully extend their legs even though that is their intention.

Communicating With Vocalizations

Happy dogs can and do bark. A scared dog adds whining to it, and a belligerent senior dog growls. During playtime, all bets are off and your dog can bark, whine and growl while still playing.

Dog Body Language Gives Clues To Health

Know what is normal for your dog, so that any body movements out of the ordinary will be noticed. If your dog walks, sleeps or behaves differently, it may be the first indicator of an underlying medical condition.

“Learning your pet’s normal body language is as important to his or her health as keeping track of the amount of dog food and water ingested,” says Dale Krier, DVM, of Creature Comforts Mobile Veterinary Service in Sherman, Connecticut. Clients of hers noticed their dog sleeping under a chair instead of her usual spot on the sofa. This was unusual, so they brought the dog in for a checkup. “It turns out Puddy was diagnosed with a chronic condition and we began treatment even before physical signs manifested. This early treatment saved her life,” Says Krier.

Be Observant

Let’s look at a few scenarios:

  • Your 2-year-old grandchild is enthusiastically hugging your senior dog. Your dog’s ears are back against the head, eyes are wide, and he is licking his own nose. Your senior dog is exhibiting stress and will bite your grandchild unless you separate them at once. Your dog is desperately trying to tell you he is scared.
  • A young child heads for your sleeping senior dog, intent on waking him up. A sleeping dog should not be touched. Tired dogs sleep deeply and may be disoriented by an unexpected touch. It is possible for this dog to become defensive and attack.
  • Your senior dog seems just a little off, but it’s nothing you can identify specifically. This is a good time to call your vet for an opinion. When you see your pet every day, most small changes go unnoticed. However, the earlier you catch an issue and begin treatment, the better the outcome.
  • Once you know the differences between happy and relaxed, as well as scared, submissive and antagonistic behaviors, you and your senior dog will communicate better and live together more happily.


    By: Mary Oquendo

    Featured Image: Via Amelia Martin/Shutterstock