Dogs and people: what we can learn from body language - Veterinary Practice
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Dogs and people: what we can learn from body language

discuss the ways in which dogs

THE pets around us are superb teachers of not just the importance of body language but also about how we can use it constructively. Dogs communicate all the time through a combination of visual, verbal and olfactory cues and signals. Like humans, much of dogs’ communication is sent through their body language, particularly facial expressions and body posture. Yet in the language of “dog”, there are no language barriers; dogs from different countries and different breeds will typically recognise the visual and vocal signals of another dog when it is feeling upset, anxious, fearful, tired, disinterested, frustrated, excited, happy and playful. Dogs can also demonstrate through these communication signals whether they’re dominant or submissive, so canine communication indicates the dog’s emotional response to situations, their social status, and it enables the dog to express his needs. The language of dog can be subtle, ranging from a glance, tensing of muscles or a slight shift in the dog’s posture to something more obvious, such as a play bow or a loud bark. And, canine communication can be complex: a given gesture may have multiple distinct meanings depending on the situation and the accompanying behaviours. Similarly, it is recognised that most body language in humans is universal. We understand each other very well no matter where we are from, except for a few culture-specific gestures that are usually done by the hands. The main areas to look at Just like with humans, you can separate dog body language into areas (not complete):

  • Face – ears, eyes, mouth.
  • Body – weight distribution, height, hair, breathing rate.
  • Tail – angle, degree of stiffness and speed.

An important thing to realise is that a single signal in itself rarely tells the complete story. Instead, you are looking for clusters. When you combine more than one signal, it starts to take on a different perspective. The content of the different clusters is what gives the nuance. For example, when a dog wags his tail, most owners believe the dog is friendly and approachable; however, a dog can bite even though he is wagging his tail. Clusters of information from his ears, eyes and body posture could have warned the owner that the tail wagging was not about friendliness, but about “keep your distance, I am afraid”. Take a look at the Table for a list of the communication signals from the dog – and our interpretation of what it means as well as what a human would mean if he or she were using the same
body language.

Where does it go wrong?

As you have no doubt noticed, most of the time our body language and that of the dog are quite close; however, there are some notable exceptions that can cause challenges and accidents if we are not aware of them. We have highlighted those areas in purple in the table. Think about when you see people meet a really nice looking dog. What do they tend to do? Most people
who are not familiar with dog language bend over, look straight at the dog with a delighted smile (and dilated pupils) and stretch out their hand. Well, in dog language that means: “I am challenging you, I am confident and will fight if I have to and I am also somewhat stressed, so it is more likely that I will bite you.” No wonder a lot of dogs back away at this point! By maintaining an upright body posture (neutral) and bending in the knees if we want to get down to the dog’s level, we avoid the shifting forward of the weight that is so threatening to the dogs. We can emphasise this by turning our bodies slightly to one side instead of being full-on frontal – that lessens the impact as well and helps us remember to avoid the direct stare. Another challenge is the pace with which we move. When we are busy in the clinic we may tend to speed up and move faster – but this sends the wrong signals to the dogs (and cats) and can exacerbate stress. By consciously slowing down, breathing deeply and moving in a relaxed way, we let the pets know that everything is safe, they can relax too – and accidents are far less likely to happen.

How about using this with people?

A very interesting fact is that when we relax, breathe slowly and move more gently, we have an impact on the owners as well. Unconsciously, they pick up on the signals as well, and it may have a calming effect on them. Similarly, if you notice that they close their eyes or block their eyes with their hands, you will know that you just said something that truly upset them, something they wish they hadn’t heard, and you can gentle your approach and explain things further to them. For people or animals, body language is the language of the unconscious mind and understanding what it means allows you a direct line into what truly is going on within them.

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