Body Language in Dogs

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been pretty busy with new clients.  Its been amazing to work with a 12 week old Belgian Malinois during a week long day training session.  He worked the whole time without usual puppy behaviors of being distracted or majorly nipping.  Well, he had a bit of a nipping fit, but that was primarily because I locked myself out of the client’s home and his rope toy lost its charm.  Otherwise, a really incredible puppy to work with and train!

On the other side of things, I met a couple of clients who hired me to work on behavior modification.  They were interested in the “why’s” their dogs do certain things.  As I began to listen to their stories and to observe their dogs, I started thinking about how and what is the dog communicating to them and if the owners were picking up on their dog’s signals.  So, I decided to ask them if they notice lip licking, yawning, play bow, rigid body; all of which are more noticeable and easier to see.  The answer I received from them is, “no, my dog doesn’t do those things”.  That left me wondering about a few things; have the dogs not learned some of those communication signals, did the dogs suppress those lower level calming signals because of being punished for showing them in the first place, or did the families not notice what the dogs was communicating to them?  I left that question hanging around the back of my head.

After a few days, I had another session with a client.  The same question came up about how their dog, Benny communicates with them and if they notice any lip licking, yawning, scratching behind the ear”?  This family also said, “no, I’ve not seen those behaviors from Benny”.  We started working on some basic obedience training.  Then, it happened.  After, one of the kids gave the dog a hug and a kiss, Benny began lip licking, and yawning.  I asked the parents if they noticed the same thing I did with Benny.  They were shocked to see him give those signals as though he’s never given them before.  I reiterated, those are lower level calming signals.  Benny is communicating he felt stress when one of the kids hugged and kissed him and Benny communicated he wanted that to stop.  I mentioned to the family, in order to ensure they protect Benny, they are charged with the responsibility to interrupt whatever is causing him stress and praise him when he’s calm.  In this case, Benny doesn’t like to be hugged so tightly, so I encouraged the family to pet Benny under the chin and to be gentle when giving him affection.

Body language in dogs is an amazing mode of communication and one us humans really need to pay attention to at all times.  Many of the calming signals are subtle and they happen between dog and human interactions and between dog and dog interactions and between dog and whatever interactions.  A dog giving calming signals is the only manner by which a dog has to voice his pleasure and displeasure with his environment.  Now, I’m curious, how many dog owners who read this, observe their dog’s body language and how do you interpret it?

Jack is not enjoying the camera in his face!

Jack is not enjoying the camera in his face!

I took several pictures of Jack.  After awhile, he began to look away (another calming signal) and then he did this.  This one of him was amazing to see a full lip/nose lick.  After this pictures was taken I removed the stress away from him and praised him.

I learned so much from reading On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas.   It was interesting seeing a picture of the behavior alongside an interpretation of what the dog is communicating.  Its enhanced my understanding of how the dog feels in different situations and the topic of body language is a central component when I’m educating clients.  There are many other resources which delve deeper into the subject of body language and I urge dog owners, if they don’t already know, begin learning about it.  A better understanding of what your dog is communicating to you, and interpreting it correctly, will only enhance your relationship with your furry friend.

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