A Classic Misunderstanding: Human vs. Dog Body Language
Imagine this scenario: You have just watched an episode of a poplar dog training TV show that has you convinced you need to play the “alpha” role so that your dog knows who’s in charge. For no particular reason, you command your dog to sit in an “assertive” tone, but instead of sitting down, your dog licks his own nose, yawns, and turns his or her head away.
You perceive this behavior as being stubborn and disobedient, take a step towards your dog and lean over them, this time saying “sit” in an “I mean business” tone – so even though your dog may have started to sit, they end up giving you a quick nose flick and lie down instead.
What just happened? Well, it may sound crazy, at first, but while you were getting worked up, your dog was asking you to calm down!
Canine Communication: Recognizing Calming Signals
A dog’s ability to cooperate is what makes them man’s best friend. Dogs are cooperative pack animals that have about 30 “calming signals” to help them avoid conflict with one another. Conflict is dangerous for the pack because it can lead to fighting, causing physical injuries that can slow the pack down and even cause death – a consequence that we all, dogs and people, try to avoid.
Tongue Flicks: “I Feel Anxious, Unsure, Or Uncomfortable” (Or All Of The Above)
Dogs signal with tongue flicks (quick nose licks) to help calm themselves down, or to send a calming signal to others. When people lean over or reach out to touch dogs, or when a group of children approach a dog, watch for a quick tongue flick.
Dog Training Tip: If your dog flicks their tongue and leans away from you when you ask for a sit, notice your body language. Is there aggression in your tone? Are you leaning towards or over your dog? In this instance, your tone and posture may be perceived as threatening to your dog. To correct this, try standing up straight, use a more neutral, but confident tone of voice (believe your dog will listen, and they will), and be clear why you are asking for a sit (i.e., it’s training time, or please sit here out of my way). Dogs are eager to please, so instruct in a calm voice and make your request situational. Praise or treat your dog when they comply willingly.
Yawning: “I Really Need A Change Of Pace Or Scenery Right Now!”
Dogs yawn when they feel bored, stressed, worried, or spent. Dogs sometimes yawn when they are yelled at or punished. Dogs yawn when children hug them too tightly and their preference is to be given some space. It is an autonomic response, drawing more oxygen into their bloodstream, that helps them to relax, and a signal to others that they’d prefer something other than what is happening in the moment: a change of scenery (“I’m bored, would you please talk me for a walk!”); less tension or attention from others (“Hey kid, I’m feeling claustrophobic right now, can you please lay off a little?”), or simply to be left alone (“I’m not interested in this activity; I’m tired and just want to rest”).
Dog Training Tip: If your dog is yawing a lot, take note of the scenario: If a child is paying a lot of attention to your dog, but they keep yawning and moving away, then your dog is not enjoying the attention. Ask the child to back off. If your dog is yawning with a trailing, high-pitched note in their voice, then they may be bored and restless: take them for a walk or give them a toy to play with. Helping your dog out of uncomfortable situations and keeping them engaged will go a long way in building a foundation of trust, the most essential ingredient in dog training.
Sitting and Lying Down: “I Am No Threat!”
Dogs will sit or lie down to help calm another dog or situation. Sitting and lying down are two ways dogs respond to calm a threat or a perceived threat.
Dog Training Tip: You are outdoors when a strange dog begins charging your dog from a distance. Turn your dog away from the charging dog and tell your dog to sit or lie down to take the wind out of the other dog’s sails.
Learning to identify your dog’s calming signals will help you to understand how your dog is trying to communicate with you; and this reciprocal understanding will help build trust between you and your dog. In the end, it’s a solid foundation of trust that what will help you to train your dog to be the very best dog he or she can be. Afterall, we are their best friend, too!
Dog Trainer Alexandra Bassett is a dog-lover who believes that making an effort to understand the way dogs communicate with each other can deepen and enrich the way humans relate to and train their dogs. She has volunteered to train shelter dogs for over a decade and specializes in solving problem dog behavior. She lives on Martha’s Vineyard and is available for free consultations. For more information, call 435-640-5073.