Dog Body Language: How Your Dog Communicates
Dogs are body language communicators -Chris Bach
So you want to truly communicate with and understand your dog? This is done most effectively by learning about canine body language and communication skills. Whether training a dog or modifying behavior, understanding how to read canine body language and communication will help you understand your dog’s behavior and feelings.
The Use of The Body
As people, we typically characterize communication as verbal. We use words to explain, learn or discuss a topic. However, there are other forms of communication such as hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language. All animals (including humans and dogs) communicate using their bodies!!!
Dogs use their bodies to tell other dogs, animals, and humans when they are happy, afraid, and angry. Think of when you come home from work and your dog is a wiggly body, happy to greet you at the door. Yup, your dog is communicating to you!
Have you ever gotten mad at your dog causing her behavior to change? Maybe she avoided you. Or her body posture became low, her ears pulled back and her eyes wide, even looking in the other direction? Yup, your dog is also communicating to you in this situation as well!
Understand Canine Body Language and Communication Skills
I am not going to try to reinvent the wheel on this topic. Instead, I have attached some helpful links to credible sources to learn more about Canine Body Language & Communication Skills. Take some time to learn about what your dog is saying. Your dog will be grateful for it!
- ASPCA Canine Body Language Webinar
- Positively.com Blog
- Zoom Room Body Language Video
- Understanding Dog Body Language (Part 1)
- Understanding Dog Body Language (Part 2)
Dogs Read Human Body Language
As I stated above, not only do dogs read body language and communication signals of other dogs, they also read human body language. (Pretty cool if you ask me!) Think about it: they live with us and they observe us…constantly.
Let’s face the facts! Dogs are brilliant. They can detect a child’s impending seizure, find missing people, and help farmers herd livestock. It is crazy to think about how many things dogs can be trained to do.
Clearly, they are smart. So of course, they study us to learn how to read our body language. Keep in mind that every dog is an individual and each dog may perceive things differently. This includes the way they perceive our body language.
Dogs watch us to understand what we are communicating to them. Typically, dogs look at our bodies before they listen to the verbal cues we give them. (This is why some dogs learn hand signals more quickly than verbal cues.)
How We Should Present Our Body
The way we present our bodies affects how our dogs perceive and react towards us. Understanding how our body language affects our dog’s behavior and reactions is very important. Here are some suggestions:
Instead of bending over your dog, try standing straight. Constantly bending over your dog causes them to feel uncomfortable, nervous and unsure. If a dog is feeling this way, they may not be fully engaged. This impairs the way he is learning and processing information.
Just as humans don’t always like others in their personal space, dogs sometimes feel the same way!!! Each and every dog is different. Be aware that some dogs do not enjoy being overly touched, handled, picked up and hugged. Dogs may display behavior that appears aggressive when they feel their safety and personal space is immediately threatened. Dogs may feel this way even towards their owners when their owners are (from the dog’s perspective) being obtuse!!!! You should always consider your dog’s boundaries and personal space.
Relaxed Body Posture
When your body posture is relaxed, your dog can relax. A stiff, forward, threatening and forceful looking body posture may convey to your dog that you anticipate a problem. Therefore, your dog will also anticipate a problem.
We know a dog finds it threatening when humans have a very forward, stiff and forceful body posture. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that dogs will find it more comforting when we have a more relaxed and calm body posture.
Stiff and forward body postures can cause some dogs to displays fearful and even aggressive behavior. When dogs are feeling this way, they may choose not to (or actually be unable to) respond to cues such as sit, stay, come. This is because internally they are uncomfortable.
Avoid Threatening Eye Contact
Dogs can find direct eye contact threatening and confrontational, especially if they are uncomfortable with an individual. Don’t ever try to stare down a dog; this is one of the worst things you can do. (Despite what some misleading TV shows might suggest!!!). In no way does this teach your dog that you are the boss.
Rather, you can cause your dog to feel threatened. Therefore, he may become fearful of you, feel the need to avoid you, or even display aggressive behavior as a way to defend himself. Remember dogs are animals! Animals do what they have to to stay alive and feel safe. My advice is to avoid threatening eye contact such as stiff, forceful and hard staring.
Some professionals feel that smiling can actually be threatening to a dog because our lips are pulled back and teeth are showing. (Similar to how a dog may display fearful and aggressive types of behavior.)
In my opinion, when you are training your own personal dog, you should smile because it will help you stay in a calm mindset. I feel that our dogs can tell when we are feeling happy and calm, just like they can sense when we are stressed and upset.
Always have an open invitation for your dog to make the choice to come over to you. The way you present yourself and your body can help your dog feel more comfortable.
The word “NO” (Oops your dog made a mistake!)
A few months ago I wrote a blog on the use of the word “NO” call Why Say NO, When You Can Say Yes.
Sometimes in life we need to be able to say “No”. “No” you can’t run across the street into traffic, “No”, you can’t eat that chicken bone, “No” I will not give you attention for barking at me! The problem is that without thinking, we overuse the word “No.” Meanwhile, we forget to praise what our dogs have done correctly. We also say it without helping our dogs understand what we would like them to do.
Remember that you cannot teach a dog what NOT to do. You can, however, teach a dog what TO DO! Instead of constantly saying the word “No” all day, start teaching your dog what they SHOULD do.
When a dog makes a mistake, instead of saying “No” and “correcting” your dog, try redirecting your dog, walking away and/or using your release cue. If you need to, simply just remove your dog from the situation.
You can also think about what you would like your dog to do instead. For example, maybe you want to teach your dog to lay down quietly on his dog bed when you are trying to eat dinner. If that is what you want, then teach him. The use of the word “No” makes us automatically lean forward and come across as slightly more threatening with our bodies.
Anthony De Marinis provides private in-home training and behavior modification solutions using humane positive reinforcement methods. He has 6 professional certifications which include: Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Certified Graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior, Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer, Certified Victoria Stilwell Licensed Positively Dog Trainer, The Third Way Certified Trainer and is a Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer. Anthony graduated from Curry College with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Communication.