Dogs communicate through their body language. With various body signals, facial expressions, and physical postures, dogs communicate how they are feeling in order to create positive interactions with each other and avoid potential conflict. Dogs use this same form of communication through their body language with people, but often people misinterpret what the dog is saying. The misunderstanding of a dog’s communication often leads to broken relationships and mistrust between a dog and its human when the result is an inappropriate response by the human.
One example of dogs communicating through their body language is in the form of calming signals which are used to avoid conflict and create peaceful interactions with each other. When two unfamiliar dogs greet each other, calming signals they might use to ensure a peaceful interaction include turning their head away, sniffing the ground, lifting a paw, turning their back, lip licking, yawning, a play bow, laying down, or walking in a curve during their approach. When you want your dog to greet another dog, have them approach each other in an arc rather than head-on, as a direct approach is considered a threat which could lead to conflict between the dogs. To help understand other calming signals that dogs use, here is a link to some great visuals: Calming Signals Dogs Use
Dogs use the same body language to communicate with people. Unfortunately, many people completely miss what a dog is saying through its body language, not understanding that a dog they think is happy or content is actually stressed or anxious. We love our dogs and want to believe they enjoy it when we hug or love on them, but many dogs find being constrained by a human through a hug as uncomfortable or even stressful.
If we want to co-exist successfully with our dogs and create relationships based on mutual respect, it is our job to accurately interpret what our dogs are saying to us and respond appropriately to their communication. For example, if you see your dog look away when a child approaches it, most likely the dog does not want to interact with the child at that moment. If the dog’s head turn is ignored and the child continues to approach, the dog may feel the need to escalate its wishes more intensely, perhaps by getting up and physically moving itself further away from the child. If the additional communication goes unheeded and the child still continues to approach, the dog may feel it necessary to give a more clear warning such as a lip curl or growl to prevent the unwanted interaction. If all of these initial forms of communication are ignored, the dog might aggress even further in order to get its point across. Dog bites happen far too frequently because of a human’s misinterpretation of the dog’s communication through its body language prior to the altercation. Often a dog is blamed for acting inappropriately when it was the human’s fault for misunderstanding the dog’s communication. By increasing our awareness of dog body language and interpreting accurately what our dogs are saying, we can build more trusting and effective relationships with our dogs by respecting their wishes through appropriate responses.
Increased understanding and accurate interpretation of our dog’s body language can help us avoid potential behavior issues that otherwise could ruin the relationship we have with our canine companions. Unfortunately, many people react to a dog’s communication such as a growl by reprimanding or punishing the dog rather than respecting its wishes. When a dog is punished for growling, it learns that this warning signal doesn’t work, but that doesn’t change how it feels. Punishment for growling teaches the dog to go straight to a bite with no warning first, which makes the dog even more unsafe to be around.
As a dog trainer, I often find that a dog’s behavior issues are directly related to the human’s misunderstanding of how to interpret the dog’s communication. Calming signals are just one of many forms of a dog’s communication that dog owners should learn how to interpret. I will go into additional ways that people misinterpret their dog’s communication in upcoming posts. By learning what our dog’s body language means and becoming really good at interpreting their communication, we can improve our relationship with our dogs by interacting with them appropriately and responding in ways that respect how our dogs feel.
Wendy Taylor is a certified professional dog trainer, graduate with distinction from Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training and Behavior, and a Certified Fear Free Animal Trainer. She helps create successful relationships between dogs and their owners in the Louisville, KY area through positive reinforcement training techniques.