Signs of arousal and alertness in dogs

A dog who is offering the cues below (as demonstrated by our handsome dog in the photo) is telling you that he is focused on something.

This dog’s body language says, “I’m alert.”

Closed mouth

Focused stare

Body tense and appearing very stiff

Ears pricked forward

Possible wrinkles in “forehead” (I know Pugs and Boxers and Bullies always have wrinkles!)

Tail raised over level of back

Tense tail – if it wags, it moves slowly and stops.

Body weight leaning forward

The dog is trying to decide how he feels about the object he is fixated on and also deciding how he will respond to it. He may chase it, bark at it, lunge at it or simply adjust to it and return to normal.

When a dog is keenly focused on something – it is not an ideal time to begin petting him. Compare it to when you are trying to concentrate or make a decision. How do you feel when someone interrupts your thought process?

I generally allow my dog to investigate the world uninterrupted when it’s healthy (i.e. not having a stare down with a dog that is barking and lunging at her). When necessary, I calmly and positively redirect her focus to me by using a chirpy voice, “watch me,” not by physically prompting or touching. I get her to look at me and we move on with our day.

I never interrupt or approach a dog that does not know me when he’s intensely focused on something else. It is important that before you approach or pet an aroused or alert dog that you first grab his attention and focus. What’s most important is figuring out if that dog really wants to interact with you. You will know this because he will approach you with a loose and soft body. With strange dogs, you need to ask yourself if it’s really worth grabbing the dog’s attention at that very moment to indulge yourself with some dog lovin’.

If you are not good at breaking down and seeing specific body positioning, you might be clued into the fact that a dog is alert or aroused if while you are petting him, you find yourself saying, “Oh, I know! It’s so exciting, what are you looking at?” The dog might dog be bobbing, and ducking his head about as he tries to look straight passed or around you. If you find yourself saying this while petting a dog, stop petting him, stand up and use that chirpy voice to grab his attention.

If you are embracing or kneeling next to an aroused dog, he might even place his paws on your body and literally push away from you as he is locked in on the other person, thing, or object.

All of the above signs are your dog saying, “Not now – I’m in the middle of something!”

If you have a dog that fixates and cannot be redirected with a chirpy voice – and his level of arousal leads to barking and lunging – it is very important to work with a humane trainer. A trainer can teach you how to positively get your dog’s attention when faced with distractions. As you can imagine, giving the dog a correction or pop to his neck or collar, a kick to his heel is a sure fire way to make him feel more stressed and anxious with the presence of the object or person. This is why it is so important to learn to gently refocus your dog, avoiding arousal from turning to confusion, frustration and redirected aggression.

Looking for more ways to better understand and communicate with your dog? Check out all of Colleen’s DogSpeak columns…