Are You Fluent in Dog? Learn to Speak Body Language
We speak English, they speak Body Language. In order to coexist, dogs have adapted immensely to decipher our foreign primate gestures and unintentionally, we're pretty confusing to our dogs. It's our duty to clean up our communication. For example, most dogs don’t like hugs. Us humans LOVE to hug, wrapping our arms tightly over the top of someone’s shoulders, pulling their head in close. To many dogs this is a threat, or at the least, a wrestling move. Most dogs have learned to tolerate hugs. However, dogs DO give affection and some much more than others. Study what kind of touch truly pleases your dog. A soft, slow pet under the chin, along the side of the shoulder or the chest? A very comfortable dog will offer their rear end, lean their body into yours or roll over for a belly rub. Become a student of your dog and yourself. Sharpen your observation skills to examine when your dog is truly comfortable based on their gross body language, plethora of facial expressions and the minuscule movements of the mouth/tongue. Every nuanced attribute counts.
- Eye contact is a very powerful player with dogs. Split second darts of the eyes can mean the difference between "YOU'RE GOING DOWN, BUDDY!" and "...I mean no harm, peace brother". Get to know what your dog’s eyes are telling you. Work on maintaining eye contact with your dog. This can be useful either as a reward or to get their attention and deliver your next cue. Teach him "Watch me" or "Look" and work up to using it on a busy street block.
- Think of your dog as a PUSH and PULL mechanism. Lean toward them any amount and it pushes them back. Lean away or better yet turn and lean away to draw the dog toward you. When teaching dogs of any age the "Come/Here" command, the first thing we do is turn and run away, and when chase ensues, resist reaching for pup with your arms, yet follow up with a reward. Same concept goes for which way your shoulders are facing In older dogs, a simple spin of the shoulders is all it takes to let them know you want them going one direction or the other.
- Where is you dogs weight or body mass? Is it forward of his feet (fight mode)? Or behind his feet (retreat/relaxed mode)? Also ask, where YOUR weight is? Forward of your feet will push your dog away from you and behind the axis will invite a dog in.
- Primates LOVE to use their hands. We reach for our children, our amigos and amigas and as a formality, shake someone’s hand. This is odd to most dogs (except some inherently footy Boxers). For most dogs we need to teach "tolerating a paw shake." A great example of adaptation, remember this; Next time you meet a dog, try not to reach out and see if the dog invites himself a little closer as a result. When are hands useful? In behavior studies, about 80% of dogs respond to hand signals over audible cues. Imagine your dog were deaf and experiment with only hand signals and body language to get them to do what you're asking. This shapes them to pay attention to us even more and can strengthen overall communication greatly. Hide + Seek, a two-person game, is another fun and engaging way to teach them how to keep an eye on you.
- Study the interactions of dogs OFF LEASH. An indirect or coy approach, rear/ground sniffing, play bows and soft facial expression are healthy signals to look for. They also love an approach from the side and to move around each other in circular patterns. I'm never a fan of greeting a new dog on leash. The leash creates all kinds of unnatural movements and restricts the important ways dogs move their bodies to communicate. I've seen many defensive and dangerous reactions simply because the dog was on leash an unable to express himself. Instead, wave hello to the owner and move along.
Over thousands of years we’ve chosen this human-canine partnership and today's modern domestic dog relies on us to enrich their lives and honor their canine nature. By understanding they way they move and "speak" and examining our own habitual movements, we can ease the frustration of getting our message across and make being with us even more enjoyable.
Follow up reading: The classic and brilliant book "On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals" by legendary trainer Truis Rugaas.