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Puppy psychology

Probably the most important thing you can do for your puppy is to learn something of his psychology. An understanding of dog psychology can help you to live happily and harmoniously with your dog. We're not expecting you to become a dog psychology expert, neither is it necessary. But a little understanding will go a long way, and if you need help and advice before a small problem becomes a large one, your first port of call should be your vet.

Reading your puppy's body language

Dogs have always communicated with each other by using body language. This involves facial expressions, body postures, noises and scents. Dogs will use their mouth, eyes, ears and tail to express emotions. And one of the reasons why they make such good pets is the way they're able to communicate with humans. Your puppy will see you as an extension of his own canine family, and will be extremely quick to interpret your moods and intentions. So by learning how to interpret his body language, you can, in turn, interpret your puppy's intentions.

Big dog: If your puppy is feeling brave or aggressive, he'll try to make himself larger by standing tall, with his ears and tail sticking upright. He'll also push out his chest and raise the hair on his neck and back (his hackles). He might also growl and wave his tail slowly.

Small dog: On the other hand, a submissive dog will try to make himself appear small and act like a puppy; that's because an adult dog will 'tell off' a puppy but not attack him. So submission will take the form of a sideways crouch near to the ground, his tail held low but wagging away. He may also try to lick the face of the dominant dog or human. He may even roll on his back.

Your puppy's tail: now there's a tale. Most of us recognise that tail wagging is a sign of friendliness and pleasure. However, exaggerated tail wagging, as we've mentioned, can be seen in submissive dogs, as well as those with very short tails. But the tail can indicate other moods, too. If it's waved slowly and stiffly, that's an expression of anger; clamped low over his hindquarters means your pet is afraid. An anxious or nervous dog may droop his tail but wag it stiffly.

The normal way a dog holds his tail varies from breed to breed but generally speaking, a tail held higher than 45 degrees to the back expresses alertness and interest.

Reading your puppy's face: Your puppy's face will tell you much about his mood; whether he's frightened or anxious, excited or playful.

Pricked up ears indicate alertness or listening; flattened ears on the other hand, could indicate pleasure or fear. So to read his mood correctly, you must look for other body language. If your dog's eyes are half closed, that's a sign of pleasure or submission; when they're wide open, that's a sign of aggression.

Let's look into your puppy's eyes: In the wild, dogs stare at each other until one backs down or makes a challenge. So you should never attempt to outstare your puppy, especially if he's nervous, but regular eye contact will reinforce your relationship and reassure him.

Is that a smile? Submissive dogs and some breeds such as Labradors often open their mouths in a kind of lop-sided "grin" and indeed, it is a sign of friendliness. But when lips are drawn back tightly to bare the teeth, that's aggression, make no mistake.

Play, please: If your puppy wants to play, he'll raise a paw or bow down and bark to attract attention. Or he might offer up a toy, or bound up to another dog to get him to join in a chase.

Your body language: If you want to improve communication with your puppy, you can improve upon your own body language. For example, crouching down with arms opened out is a welcome sign. But towering over him and staring is a sign of threat. Your puppy will watch you to read your body signals more than he will listen to you, and he'll quickly learn what you're feeling even without you speaking.

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