How Canine Body Language Can Help Us Understand Our Pets’ Behavior—and Our Own

This series is brought to you in partnership with Purina ONE®. These stories highlight how pets have provided creative inspiration in the worlds...

This series is brought to you in partnership with Purina ONE®. These stories highlight how pets have provided creative inspiration in the worlds of technology, education, business, and beyond. Read more about how pets—and the people who love them—can brighten lives and strengthen our communities at the GOOD Pets hub.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you and your dog spoke the same language? Luckily, with techniques using non-verbal cues, gestures and body posture, it turns out you can.

Think of how you can instantly tell without a word when people close to you are stressed—their shoulders are slumped, arms are crossed, face muscles are tense. A recent study was conducted to see if people have the ability to distinguish canine emotions also. During the study, animal experts worked with dogs to elicit responses such as happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust and anger, and photographed these responses. Researchers found that even people inexperienced with dogs were able to identify the dog’s emotions correctly. This led researchers to conclude that emotional communication might be more similar across species than we currently realize.

Still, people often miss non-verbal cues, says Dr. Sophia Yin, animal behaviorist and author of How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves. One commonly misunderstood behavior is sleepiness. “People think their dog is being good because it’s not being as active as normal,” says Yin. If your dog starts to look tired and is yawning in a situation where they shouldn’t be tired, it’s most likely anxiety or nervousness, she says. Other subtle cues that a dog is uncomfortable, says Yin, is if the dog avoids eye contact, suddenly isn’t hungry, licks his lips, or closes his mouth suddenly.

When a dog is feeling comfortable, his muscles usually look at rest. “When dogs are happy they tend to have an overall relaxed body,” says Yin. “If they’re happy with a person, they may be focused on that person, providing eye contact. Their ears are usually forward. Then they often will have an open mouth play face; that’s when their mouth is open but the sides of their lips are relaxed.”

Dr. Myrna Milani, veterinarian and author of more than seven books on body language and pet behavior, stresses that factors like a dog’s personality, their relationship with their owner, and the type of situation all play a role in comprehending emotions. “The key is to know your individual dog,” Milani says, “and also to recognize that the body language expressions that work for the two of you might not work for you with another dog, or for another person with your dog.”

Body language goes both ways; people often don’t realize their dog is closely watching their body cues, as well. And many times, they can easily misread what our physical postures mean. For example, humans really like to move their hands around, which can give dogs the wrong signals. If your dog jumps on you when you get home and you push him away or start waving your arms to signal “no, stop,” you’re actually turning yourself into what Yin calls “a human squeaky toy.”

You may think you’re disciplining your dog by putting your hands up, but dogs often interpret the opposite. “Some dogs think they’re being played with, as a result, you’re accidently rewarding that kind of behavior with your body cues.” Yin recommends that you stand completely still with your arms by your side until your dog stops the undesired behavior, and then give him a reward.

Your own emotional state can reflect how your dog behaves. In her veterinarian practice, Milani has found that, when working with aggressive dogs, if a person exhibits body language that can be interpreted as fearful, dogs will respond poorly. “In the majority of the cases, dogs are aggressive out of fear,” Milani says. “If the owner is also afraid, the dog is going to see that.”

But can people broadcast an emotion if they are not actually feeling it? In this TED talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy discusses how faking body language to communicate confidence can actually create inner confidence. Similarly to how studies have found that smiling—even fake smiling—can change your brain chemistry to make you feel happier, Cuddy led a study that found being in a “high-power” pose—think Wonder Woman’s iconic stance with her hands on her hips—can boost testosterone and lower stress hormone levels. Her talk is a reminder that sometimes even if we don’t feel confident, we can trick our body—and our pets—into seeing us as more confident and in control.

Small things like recognizing when your dog is anxious and trying to alleviate that anxiety, or utilizing your own body posture when interacting with your pet might be able to ease communication between the two of you. Less frustration, more tail wagging—it’s a win-win for both of you.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user ginnerobot

Julian Meehan

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