Why corgis have short legs and sharp teeth: canine body language

There are only a very few books that study canine body language in-depth with narrative pictures, and sadly just about all of them use black and whites, often blurry. I know this is because of production costs (very few people would buy a $75 glossy full-color coffee table book parsing the fine points of canine mouth postures during play fighting), but I think it’s a huge pity. So where I can, when I’ve caught it, I will post pictures of behaviors. Each picture below is clickable and will open bigger if you want to see more detail.

My daughter is offering the dogs a toy to get them to run around after her. This is a favorite game and they will play it for hours if you let them. The players in this particular group are Clue and Bronte (the corgis), Bramble, and Bastoche (also called Elvis and That Cursed Dog, but for simplicity’s sake I’m going to use just “B”). Bramble and B are Jack Russell cross puppies, four months old. You can see Bramble’s little black head over Bronte’s back. You can see how strongly B is alerting on that toy. He is VERY toy-driven with a lot of prey behaviors; a good terrier.

Look at B’s ears, head, and tail, and the foot coming off the ground as he prepares to attack. He’s extremely fixated on the toy, which he’s going to quickly find out is a mistake when you’re a puppy in a pack situation.

In the amount of time it took the camera to take the next frame (it takes 2.5 a second, so about a third of a second) B is leaping up to get the toy. His HUGE mistake here is that he is leaping up and over Clue, who is the oldest and most dominant female in the pack. This is the rough equivalent of shoving your aunt out of the way to grab the scrambled eggs at breakfast. It’s a major breach of etiquette. Bronte immediately moves to punch him with her nose or hit him with her teeth (the angle makes it hard to tell); her focus is completely off the toy but he’s still ignoring her. Mid-abdomen is the place where dogs often touch to try to stop bad behavior–you’ll see dogs do this when an impolite dog jumps on a person, too.

B is still totally focused on that toy, and he’s up and away, leaping over Clue.


Look how Clue has jerked her head around to stare at him. A stare is a warning; dogs do not make eye contact unless they are making a serious “watch it, punk” statement. B is totally oblivious.

He’s landed on the other side of her and is coming up from the ground at a run.

And here you see why corgis have short legs. In a flat race, B can beat the corgis without even trying. He’s a 12-lb dog on a 6-inch leg; they’re 25 and 30 lb dogs on 3-inch legs. But the genius of this body structure, why they were bred as herders, is apparent in situations like this.

It’s going to take him a stride or two to recover. And meanwhile, she’s tucked those short legs under her and has cornered on one front and one back leg.

He’s still recovering, and she’s at full speed. He doesn’t stand a chance. He’s still thinking he’s going after the toy, by the way. She has an entirely different motive.

In two strides, she’s up on his front and swings her head down to bite him where his leg joins his body. This is a herding move; many breeds do not instinctively choose that position as the first one to bite. The Danes, for example, would usually go for the shoulder or the top of the neck; those are the places you grab a large animal to drag it down and kill it. Different jobs (herder versus hunting hound), different instinctive behaviors.

You can tell he really feels this one; his whole body is going “OWW!” and his head finally swings her way. The toy is forgotten.

The bite on his body slows his progress, and she leaps in front of him to follow through and drive him back. Again, this is a classic herding move.

He is literally trying to run backwards right now, but he’s not going to make it. Look and see how again she can make those incredibly fast turns because her front legs form short solid pivots under her body.

Notice that Bramble is quite interested in what’s going on.

I love this view of her face and mouth as she approaches him. He is going to get spanked pretty hard for being so rude.

Look also at how long it’s taken Bramble to be able to turn around. He’s a couple feet further than he was in the last frame, and he’s finally gotten his body going the right direction. He has short legs, but they’re much longer than the corgis’ and they are set wide on his body, not under his body. He can’t use them to turn within one stride like Clue can.

Smack! Clue hits B hard enough to knock him sideways. I can’t see her face here, but I am almost sure that she’s actually contacting him with a set and partly open mouth, so he gets a bit of a canine tooth against his neck. This will do him no harm; she will not bite down.

You can see that she’s spun him almost completely around.

He apologizes. The tongue flick says a worried “please; I don’t want to fight. Let’s all relax.” He shows white in the corner of his eye; he’s anxious. He got the message.

Bramble finally arrives to check out the action.

Clue is done with her discipline. She’s relaxed again, mouth long, tail up and relaxed, but very definitely dominant. If she were human, she’d be dusting off her hands with a satisfied smile on her face. B has tucked his head and is looking at the corner of her mouth. He probably either just touched it with his nose or is just about to. Puppies poke the corner of adults’ mouths to say “I am just a tiny baby puppy; please tolerate and nourish me.” He’s saying, in effect, that he remembers his place in the pack and he hopes she will be tolerant of him and not punish him any more.

All is forgiven. Clue takes off in a play chase, B close behind. Because he behaved appropriately, she is willing to interact with him again and has invited him to a run.


4 thoughts on “Why corgis have short legs and sharp teeth: canine body language

  1. That was one of the most interesting and informative blog posts I have ever read. Fascinating. I have two lab/ridgeback mix brothers and they do things like this to one another all the time, but usually two quick for me to really see the details. Thanks.

  2. I agree with the others, it’s so interesting & helpful to get the translation to the body language. Thank you for taking the time to do it!

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