You can assume that your Chihuahua’s behavior has some sort of intention, as crazy as that might seem sometimes. Social behavior or signals that are directed at people or other dogs, with intention, is communication. Chihuahuas routinely communicate to their two-legged family members, using a range of signals, including playful, fearful, and aggressive communication.
How fluent is the average dog owner at reading dog body language? Can you read the signals of your Chihuahua and know what is he saying? Not always, since the signals are subtle (sometimes happening in the blink of an eye), usually happening in clusters with other behaviors that affect the meaning, and may vary according to context.
For example, even a tail wag from your Chihuahua can convey different meanings, including arousal (sometimes happy, sometimes threatening), excitability, affiliation or friendliness, anxiousness, or aggressive threat. The meaning of the tail wag may vary depending on the other behaviors seen in the cluster, such as ear position, hackles, lip and eye positions, body weight distribution, and the height of tail carriage.
What areas of canine communication should you become familiar with to understand your Chihuahua? The broad behavioral categories, and the communication signals that occur with them, that will affect your ability to understand your Chihuahua include play behaviors, fearful behaviors, and aggressive behaviors. Let’s go through them to learn a few basics.
First review the Body language Quick Reference to become familiar with typical body language your Chihuahua may exhibit when feeling relaxed and happy, fearful or aggressive. Keep in mind that a dog may show combinations of more than one emotional state (for example his fur is up along the back and he is crouched or, with a tense body and drooling) and can move back and forth between fear and aggression very quickly, depending on how threatened he feels.
It’s wise to evaluate the situation closely if your Chihuahua’s body language moves out of the neutral range for any reason.
Play communication is one of the easiest things to recognize in a Chihuahua. Many play signals that dogs give each other are also given to other species, including humans. So what are the most commonly seen play signals?
People seem to recognize the face of a playful dog. Most people respond to a dogs “play face”, by smiling back at the dog – it’s easily read across species. The play face dogs give each other, and us, is characterized as slightly panty, with the lips retracted, loosed jawed, ears pulled back, and it looks like the dog is smiling. The rest of the dog is relaxed and tail is wagging with the big, side to side, hip level wag that characterizes friendliness, or even in big circles, propeller style.
Occasionally, someone not very experienced with dogs is taken aback by the play face because the dog’s teeth are showing, and they’re under the impression that if a dogs teeth are visible, he must be aggressing. See how easy it can be to make mistakes about dog communication by paying attention to just one signal?
Another commonly seen signal, between dogs and from dogs to people is the “play bow”. This exaggerated posture can be described as “butt in air, elbows on the floor”, often with the above-described play face and wagging tail. Your Chihuahua in this stance is ready for a game, so join in.
One of the common concerns about play is that sometimes it looks like aggression. Remember, play is essentially the practice of adult behaviors such as predation, reproduction, and social relations, so when dogs play they use the body language that would be seen in those contexts.
Often, the ways that we commonly play with our dogs rely on stimulating that predatory sequence we talked about earlier: owner jazzes dog up with toy, owner tosses toy, dog chases and retrieves toy, all based on the predation sequence. Even just giving the dog a chew toy is a way to stimulate the other end of the sequence: grab, bite, dissect, consume.
Sometimes, play can spill over into outright aggression. Predatory drift can occur in social situations when one dog triggers a predatory response in the second, usually much larger, dog. This can be triggered by the smaller dog if it yelps, panics, or struggles during a scuffle in a manner to trigger the predatory motor pattern described previously.
Social interactions between Chihuahuas and larger dogs, or predatory breeds, should be monitored carefully, and interrupted if the intensity gets overheated. Even a gentle larger dog can inadvertently injure a tiny dog, triggering a tragic chain of events resulting in death or injury of a small dog. Better to encourage size matched playmates on a regular basis was an outlet for all that playful energy.
What makes social play different from fighting are the clusters of calming signals and pausing that indicate that the play is not turning into something else. These clusters of context-specific signals indicate that “we’re still playing”! Remember, dogs don’t have hands, so they play with their teeth.
Often puppies will get into heated mock battles, wrestling and chasing each other. As the arousal level increases, play is frequently broken off while the dogs pause, sometimes sniff or engage in another activity for a few seconds, and then play resumes, often with the dogs switching roles from prey to predator and back again.
Even when dogs practice the repertoire of potentially aggressive behaviors, such as stalking, chasing, pouncing, growling, biting, and head shaking, there is a lack of intensity in the postures, and the dogs remain relaxed, with frequent pausing and other signals such as a lack of direct eye contact to indicate that it’s all in good fun.
So, why is it important to recognize fearful behavior in your Chihuahua? After all, if your Chihuahua isn’t the bravest dog on the block, you’re there to protect him. Unfortunately, not all Chihuahuas love the limelight, and many genuinely prefer the company of a few gentle companions, not a busy, boisterous lifestyle.
A fearful, timid, or shy Chihuahua is unhappy in situations that stress him. Fearful body language, such as shaking, cowering, or frantic panting can be a big clue that your Chihuahua is not emotionally comfortable. You can help him overcome that fear and increase his quality of life, especially if your Chihuahua is young.
Generally, Chihuahuas will be fearful of new people, places or things if they have not been exposed to them during the developmental stages of puppyhood, a process called socialization. Socialization is critical for healthy adulthood, and is difficult at best after five or six months of age. So, a fearful adolescent or adult Chihuahua is often an indicator that the puppy was not well-socialized, or was frightened during the socialization process.
Good socialization not only teaches a puppy that specific things are not to be feared, it also has a cumulative effect – in general the more frequently a puppy is exposed to novel things the less fearful he will be as an adult to novel things.
If your Chihuahua is exhibiting fearful body language, typically crouching with ears back, tail tucked, and displaying calming signals, take note. Your Chihuahua is telling you that something or someone is threatening him, and to give him more room. Try gentle reintroduction later, and take care not to force exposure – that will only make the fear worse!