Oh, if only dogs could talk, our jobs would be much easier! But though they don’t speak English, dogs do communicate all the time. A willingness to listen is one of a dog walker’s most important professional attributes. Being a pro means being a life-long student of canine body language, dedicated to attaining an ever deeper understanding of the subtle, nuanced, ritualized signals dogs use to “talk” to each other and to us.
The payoffs of this enjoyable study are enormous and profound—an ever-increasing connection to our canine companions and charges, greater ease managing dog behavior and safety, the ability to provide dogs with maximum comfort and fun, and a widening sense of wonder at these amazing creatures.
Here are 5 tips to assist your quest for “fluency” in reading dog body language:
Tip 1: Go all in
It’s sometimes said that learning to read canine body language is like learning a foreign language. But given that dogs aren’t human and that they speak largely with their bodies rather than their vocal chords, it’s really more like learning an alien language.
We tend to overlook the depth of this challenge because most of us have been around dogs our whole lives. It’s easy to think we “know” and understand them. Unfortunately, most of us have also grown up with common misperceptions about dogs that are so pervasive and so seemingly logical we don’t think to question them. These myths and bits of conventional wisdom lead to all sorts of misunderstandings about what dogs are trying to tell us. One of the most common is mistaking signals meant to diffuse a situation (a lowered head, rolling over, raising a paw) as a dog’s admission of guilt.
To get past our cultural misreads and pursue a greater, more meaningful understanding of dogs requires guided study of canine body language, whether through courses (like the Dog Walking Academy), DVDs (Dogwise is a great source), or even books (check out Brenda Aloff’s while you’re poking around the Dogwise site).
Tip 2: Read dogs as dogs
It’s easy, tempting, and human to anthropomorphize the behavior of dogs. In other words, to interpret dog behavior as though dogs are mini humans, and ascribe them human motivation. This tendency is at the root of most of our misunderstandings of and struggles with dogs.
For example, because we form dominance hierarchies, we assume they do, too (the science shows they do not), leading to all sorts of conflicts and harmful practices in our quest to be “alpha.” Because we understand right from wrong, we assume they do, too (the science shows they do not), leading us to conclude that dogs “know better,” and justifying their punishment when we fail to train them effectively.
Dogs are not human. They do not feel guilt. They do not seek revenge. They do not care about their status. These are uniquely human traits born of a brain large and complicated enough to allow for metacognition and self-awareness. Part of the beauty of dogs is that they lack these less attractive human qualities.
Learning to read body language is more than studying the meaning of the signals dogs use. It is also learning the canine motivations and intentions behind those signals. Dogs do not do things for all the same reasons we do. To do our best by dogs requires understanding them as the species they are, rather than as four-legged, furry humans.
Tip 3: Read the entire dog
Conventional wisdom tends to place too much emphasis on single body language signals. For example, growing up we’re told to watch a dog’s tail—everything’s okay if it’s wagging. But that’s not necessarily true. Dogs use their entire bodies to communicate. Reading only the tail is like talking to someone on a cell phone that’s cutting in and out. Tails wag in many ways to communicate many things, and what the rest of the body is doing while the tail is wagging is just as important. That includes the dog’s ears, eyes, weight carriage, movement, vocalizations, and more. As Dog Walking Academy co-creator Mik Moeller always said, “Let the dog get the whole sentence out.”
Tip 4: Read the context
When you’re reading a dog, pay attention to the context, or the surrounding environment. What’s going on? Are there other dogs present? Are they familiar or new? Are there distractions, good or bad? A cat or squirrel you hadn’t noticed, or a person giving off strange vibes? Maybe a loud or startling noise? Body language can communicate a dog’s internal state as well as her intentions, and paying attention to the surrounding context can help you understand why a dog may be behaving a particular way and what you can do to help. For example, if you see a dog using fear signals, identifying the source of her discomfort can help you decide what action to take.
Tip 5: Read the grey
Like humans, dogs can feel ambivalent, unsure, or confused. For example, it’s common to see dogs use play and stress signals at the same time, or to see a mix of fear and warning signals. You can be excited and nervous at the same time. (Just think about going on a date!) You can be scared and angry at the same time, too. When you see a dog displaying a mix of signals, always base your decision about whether and how to intervene on the more serious set. Say a dog is throwing a play bow or lifting a play paw in a social interaction with another dog, but you also notice a lot of lip licking and head turning that could indicate discomfort and a desire for social distance. You might choose to gently step in to give her the opportunity to disengage.
Tip 6: Read the other dog(s)
Dog professionals learn to watch the entire interaction between dogs—which means watching both or all dogs involved in a “conversation.” To watch just one dog is like listening to someone talking to someone else on a phone—you only get one side of the conversation, and it’s easy to get the gist all wrong. Taking a look at the other dog can provide strong clues about what the dog you’re interested in is saying. For example, imagine you’re struggling to read a particular set of signals—is she or isn’t she comfortable with another dog? You look at the other dog and see that he’s backing slowly away—there’s your answer. Clearly your dog is sending some sort of warning signals; now you just have to look closer to see what they are.
Learning to listen
Learning to read and understand canine body language may not be as complicated as mastering Portuguese or Mandarin. There are no subjunctive or pluperfect tenses, no need to conjugate verbs or apply gender or tone. And gratefully the vocabulary is pretty small by comparison, too.
But we shouldn’t overlook the unique challenge of a largely verbal species learning to read and understand the meaning and intention behind another species’ mostly physical communication. It’s a more complicated undertaking than we realize, and one that pays tremendous dividends the more we’re willing to listen.
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