Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Are You Trying to Tell Me Something, Lassie?


Pet Column for the week of June 14, 2010

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Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Julia Disney
Information Specialist

Source - Linda P. Case, MS
Some of the all-time favorite animal movies (Bambi, The Lion King, or Homeward Bound, to name a few), take a look into the (anthropomorphized) minds of our four-legged friends. We may be able to understand their words in the movies, but do you know what Fido is thinking in real life?

Linda Case is an adjunct assistant professor who teaches companion animal behavior and training at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. She also owns Autumn Gold Dog Training Center, in Mahomet, Ill., and has authored several books, including Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends. While we aren't able to speak directly to our furry companions, she says there are a few key things you can watch for in your dog to understand how they are feeling.

One of the most important times to both understand and listen to your dog is when it may be in a new situation. Are you introducing your dog to a friend for the first time? One of the most important things to watch, Case says, is your dog's facial expression.

"A comfortable, relaxed, and friendly dog will have what is called a 'greeting grin': a relaxed face, open mouth, and tongue out," according to Case. A curious dog may have its ears up and pointed forward, and it will likely move forward to greet the new human, demonstrating its interest.

But maybe Fido is feeling shy that day, or gets a little nervous around new people. If your dog does seem to have tension in its face and is panting more than usual, it may be a little hesitant about making new friends. A nervous pup may also have its ears pinned back, wide and round eyes, and a tucked tail (which may still be wagging out of nerves). If your dog is not moving forward to greet the newcomer, it may be a little too anxious about the situation.

The best way to handle a nervous or anxious dog is to allow the dog to control the degree of interaction. Do not try to push the dog forward or allow the newcomer to overwhelm the dog with a premature greeting. "Have the new person crouch down and turn sideways, and allow the dog to come to them," Case says. This allows the dog to greet in its own time, at a pace the it is comfortable with.

There are situations, though, that may just be too much for a dog to handle at the time, especially if there is a large group of people or new humans coupled with a new, over-stimulating environment. In these situations, Case recommends that you take the dog out of the situation before it becomes too stressed.

The key to any new situation is to take things slow and listen to what your dog is telling you. We must respect our furry best friends by listening to their needs and wants, even if they speak only through their body language.

For more information about animal behavior or your pet's body language, contact your local veterinarian.