Editor’s note: To celebrate National Train Your Dog Month, we got together with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers to run a series of posts through January. Read others in the series: “Dog Training Is Important,” “5 Time-Saving Tips for Training Your Dog,” “How to Find the Perfect Dog Trainer,” “Train Your Dog in Nose Work,” “I Got a Puppy I Didn’t Want — But Training Her Helped Me Grieve the Dog I’d Lost,” and “What to Expect from Your Dog’s Training.”
In December, I thought it would be fun to get a picture of my dogs with Santa. A local pet-friendly establishment was offering photos, and when it was our turn, I walked my dogs, Sylvie and Sarge, toward the man in the red suit.
Sylvie approached Santa with a loose body, relaxed wagging tail, and open mouth, her ears in a neutral position. Her body language said she was comfortable. On the other hand, Sarge’s body language communicated a different message. He cautiously approached with his head and tail lowered, and with his mouth closed, and as he got closer, the hair on his back raised. Sarge was saying, “I’m not comfortable with this strange bearded person in a furry suit.”
My “jolly routine” (speaking in an upbeat, happy manner) didn’t affect his emotional state, so rather than allow my dog to continue to be stressed and pushing him to accept something he was wary of, I calmly escorted my dogs away.
An important part of responsible pet ownership is understanding your dog’s body language. Dogs communicate with their faces, ears, eyes, eyebrows, tails — their entire bodies. I have learned to “listen” to my dogs, to the extent possible, in every interaction with other dogs and people, including with myself. Here are several reasons for the importance of understanding dog body-language.
1. Understanding body language can keep everyone safe
We should understand dog body-language to help keep ourselves, our dogs, and other people and dogs safe. Every dog has the equivalent of a dangerous weapon in their mouth — teeth. How they wield that weapon is affected by their genetics, environment, and training. Regardless, it is vital that we be able to read a dog to prevent and avoid potential conflict.
When Sarge’s hackles went up, I immediately felt a sense of urgency to diffuse the potential conflict. Rather than react in emotion, such as nervously apologizing to Santa or, worse, yelling at Sarge (which would just add more anxiety to the situation), I cheerily called Sarge to me (which we have practiced hundreds of times) and redirected him away from the situation. Not that Sarge has ever bitten, but I never want to push him into a situation where he felt like he didn’t have another other option. What if Santa had made a sudden movement, or moved his hand toward Sarge? With a dog already in an emotional state of caution, anything could tip the scales into further defensive action on the part of the dog.
There was a time when I misunderstood dog body-language and I missed the precursors of aggressive behavior, which later developed into a serious behavior problem. Had I been aware that my dog was feeling uncomfortable or behaving defensively, I could have addressed the root of the problem with help from a trainer before the behavior escalated. Trainer Sara Reusche writes, “When a dog bites, he’s often told us in every way he could how upset he was, and been ignored. Sometimes a bite is the only way he has of letting us know what’s wrong.”
2. It can reduce stress
It is important to understand your dog’s body language so that he is not exposed to unnecessary amounts of stress. Just as with people, stress in dogs can cause health and behavioral problems.
There are many specific ways that dogs display stress: a yawn, a lip lick, sweaty paws, dilated pupils, freezing, food refusal. When I recognize these signs, I try to determine the cause of the stress and possibly deal with it through training or management to help my dogs relax. Through training, I can help my dog change his underlying emotional reaction toward something or someone, and through management, I can minimize my dog’s stressors.
3. It helps with communication
Understanding your dog’s body language is key to your relationship with your dog. Relationships are built on and sustained by communication. Communication goes both ways — we should strive to “listen” to our dogs just as we want our dogs to listen to us. When my dog shakes off after I hug him, I should be aware that I just did something that made him uncomfortable. When entering a new place, if I notice that my dog suddenly moves slowly and has muscle bulges by his mouth and eye, I may have to adjust my pace or plans for the benefit of my dog.
Keep in mind that to dogs, vocal communication is secondary to body language, that is, they primarily communicate by body language. In dog training, we have a term called “trainer babble.” These are all the words that dogs tune out, because they can only focus on so much at a time. If you are moving and talking at the same time, your dog is responding more to your body movement than to your words, because the movement is more salient, meaning it will overshadow your words.
There are many good resources available for learning about the rich and complex language of dogs. Stanley Coren explains in his wonderful book How To Speak Dog about the multi-faceted forms of canine communication, and includes his version of a “Doggish Phrasebook.” An excellent DVD on the subject is called What Is My Dog Saying? by Carol Byrnes.
The more we understand dog body-language, the better we will understand and appreciate these remarkable creatures.