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How to Read Your Dog

Written by Eukanuba Staff

Dogs can’t speak, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t eager to communicate. Savvy handlers look at body language to understand what’s going on with their dogs. Every dog has a number of tells, and each one says something different.

Hannah Criscoe of Whistling Wings Kennel with her Boykin Spaniel

Gaining insight into what dogs are trying to communicate is important for improving performance levels, and here’s some advice from several top pros.

Brad Arington, Mossy Pond Retrievers, GA

“Ears and tails tell a lot about a dog. Ears that are forward show a dog that is interested and paying attention. If they’re pinned back then the dog might be confused, nervous or timid. Cracking tails show a bold dog that’s ready to work. Tails tucked under also show that a dog is confused, nervous or timid. Eyes are also important because they are an indicator of a dog’s overall health and intensity. If the eyes are bright and alert the dog likely feels great and is ready to go. If the eyes are slow and not sparkling the dog might not feel well.”

Jerry Havel, Pineridge Grouse Camp and Kennels, MN

"In my home grouse and woodcock covers, reading a dog isn’t always that easy, especially in the early through midseason. The understory in young forests is so thick that I oftentimes can’t see my dogs. Instead of looking at their body language I have to listen to them, and I call this process ‘reading the bell.’ All dogs have a regular rhythm and their pace causes the bell to ring in a particular way. Any change to that pattern means something. If the rhythm slows down then I know the dog is making game. When the sound slows almost to a stop, I know the dog is picking up a lot of scent. A bell that isn’t ringing obviously means a point, but if the ring starts up in an occasional clang then I know my dog is repositioning.”

Ashly Kite, Moss Bend Retrievers, NC

“When I get to a dog’s kennel door and see him scratching to get out I pay attention. I’ll open the cage door, and if he’s pushing his way out I pay even more attention. I’ll collar him up and put him on the ground, and if he sits and looks at me for a command I know we’re going to have a big run. His focus is more on me and going to work than anything else. That behavior has been consistent with every dog that has been part of my few hundred upper level wins.”

Stephen Faust, Stoneybrook Outfitters, NC

“I’ve got a string of 8 Gordon setters, and even though they’re all related they work slightly differently. Their biggest tell comes from the intensity of their point. Watching their movement tells me how close they are to a contact. If they’re not super intense then the initial contact is probably on foot scent. When their body is intense then I know the dogs are locked in.”

Todd Agnew Craney Hill Kennel, GA

“Reading spaniels is really quite difficult. They have docked tails that are always in motion, their normal attitude is animated, and their energy levels are super high. They’re smaller dogs that might not be easily seen in the thick cover of the grouse woods or in the tall grasses of the prairies. One reliable method is to watch the patterns they are running. While working into the wind, the spaniels should be casting between 9 and 3 on an imagined clock. When they veer off suddenly then they’re giving a clue that they caught scent. That’s a signal for hunters to move towards them and to get ready. Their directional changes mean that things are about to become very interesting.”

Arington’s words ring true. “Learning a dog’s signs is one of the hardest things to do. It’s a gift that some have and others don’t. Every dog is different and understanding what they’re telling a handler is one of the most important things for taking a dog to the next level.” Learn how to read your dog and together you can achieve peak performance.


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