Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language
So much in communication is non-verbal. Think how much we process not through the words we hear but via the presentation of the speaker, their body language, their facial expressions, the way they use their hands, etc.
Now think about how often we talk to our dogs whether that’s when we’re asking for a certain behaviour or just general chit chat. A lot right? How much do you think they’re reading us through our body language rather than speech? You’ll be able to answer this if you’ve ever inadvertently glanced at your dog’s lead when it’s not walk time only for Fido to start leaping around in crazy excitement.
Experiment – visual cues vs. verbal cues
Here’s a little experiment for you to try. Take a cue (command) that your dog is pretty good at, perhaps Sit, Stand or Down, now instead of standing in front of him, try giving the cue from behind him, lying on the sofa or standing with your back to him (you can use a mirror). How did he do? Not as well or as quickly as when you’re standing in front of him maybe. Now try it again in your usual position, but concentrate on noticing what your body is doing – are you using a hand gesture, is your head inclining down or up, back or forward, are you rocking forward or back on one foot (even a little)?
Dogs are clued in to human body language
So you see your dog is taking in these visual clues all the time, identifying what we want, what we’re going to do next, our mood, whether we’re happy with them or not. Dogs are truly brilliant at this detection skill, shouldn’t we return the favour and try and become a bit more fluent in their body language too?
You already know when your dog is Happy, Excited, Scared. Can you tell if he’s uncomfortable, slightly nervous, becoming stressed, about to react? Maybe you find these signals harder to discern. Have there been times when a reaction has seemed to come out of the blue? If we get better at detecting and illuminating our dog’s body language we’ll be doing them and ourselves a huge favour.
3 Great clues – Posture, Tension and Movement
Naturally as with all animals there’s a great deal of subtlety and variety in dog body language; if you’ve ever looked this up online or in books you may have been overwhelmed by everything to learn about the angle of a tail the orientation of a wag, the pitch or an ear and the flick of a tongue.
Three great clues are posture, tension and movement or lack thereof. By watching these aspects we’ll be able to detect a lot of what your dog is feeling, and within these we’ll start to notice the more subtle and/or brief signals contained within them.
In the image below we’re zooming in to have a closer look at these clues. How do you think the dog is feeling here about the proximity and scrutiny of the little girl, what does the posture, tension and movement tell us?
Posture: this applies to movement as well as stillness. The posture here looks awkward and uncomfortable, he’s twisting back around perhaps to check what she’s doing. There is a curve here but it’s not a loose, soft wiggly shape indicating ease and happiness; think about when your dog seems to wag his whole body in greeting. This is alert, stiff and not relaxed.
Tension: we can see so much tension in this dogs’ body and in his face. See how the legs appear braced, although his body is curved; the visible muscular tension along the length of his neck and body shows that this movement is not fluid.
Facial tension is showing in the widely opened eyes—we call this Whale Eye, as the white of the eye is partially visible—you may have seen this type of eye position in images online, perhaps on posts about ‘guilty dogs.’ It’s not an indication of guilt but is an indication of stress and/or fear. We can also see a tightly shut mouth and the low pinned back ears.
Movement: always beware of an absolute freeze in movement (think mannequin challenge) it’s usually a precursor for action, fast movement, and reaction—it depends on the scenario what this might be. Chase, Flight, Play or Fight—the freeze is a warning that an action is about to occur and it could be lightning fast. At times of high stress, particularly when they’re afraid, a dog may also endeavour to move away very slowly, almost in slow motion.
What is this dog’s body language saying?
How about this one? Can you see the tension here? Look at this pup’s body—tension is clear in the stiffness of the front legs, the visible muscles flexed down the length of the body, the orientation of the body leaning back and away from the child. Luckily this pup has room to back out and away of a situation he’s obviously so uncomfortable with. But note he’s not averting his gaze or moving his head sideways in this frame (which are common calming signals dogs often use when feeling challenged), so an alternative action for this pup is to snap at that pesky frisbee. Imagine if this set up was against a wall or enclosed space. Yikes!
What about this one?
By contrast in the image above we can see this dog is so much more at ease with the contact he’s having with this human.
Posture: Leaning in, relaxed tail carriage, soft eyes and ears, open mouthed.
Tension: We can see some bracing of the back legs here which makes him look a little tense but I think we can put this down to balancing as he’s leaning on his human.
Movement: Loose, fluid and curved. He’s not poised for action. I imagine he’s going to continue to lean on her and enjoy a scratch and then flop down at her feet for a tummy rub. What do you think?
Check out these two rocking their polite greeting!
Posture: Note the bendy fluid bodies, each is curved, their eyes cast away from or beyond the other. Their movements are parallel rather than one holding themselves higher or over the other. This helps to keep the encounter neutral.
Tension: This isn’t an entirely relaxed situation and we can see more tension here than in the previous image. But if one of them wants it to end, it’s low key enough for them to wander away, perhaps signalling a retreat by sniffing at the ground.
Movement: Ideally we want movement throughout a meeting and investigation. Remember our freeze warning. These two have approached each other in a mutually respectful way and now they’re getting to know each other a little better, they’re moving throughout this process.
OK, Doggie Detectives, what are these dogs’ bodies saying?
Remember to look for your three main clues – posture, tension and movement.
How do you think it’s going to play out? What other variables are present here that might influence the possible outcomes? We’d love to hear what you think. Time to put those doggie detective skills to work!
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