How To Observe Canine Body Language

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

"Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen". - Orhan Pamuk

When observing canine body language it is important that we follow a few key rules. It is easy to fall in to the trap of comparing canine behaviour to our own human behaviour, but, I believe this to be unhelpful and often misleading.


Contrary to popular belief dogs do not speak or understand English (or any other spoken language for that matter)!


Follow the concepts below when observing canine body language:

Context

It is important to observe body language in context. Almost all behaviours, when observed on their own, could mean a number of different things in different contexts. Not all yawns mean your dog is stressed in the same way that not all tail wags mean your dog is happy!


Objective vs Subjective views

Subjective views that try to guess a dogs emotional state by suggesting a dog is 'scared' or 'excited' or 'aggressive' is not the most helpful way of looking at canine body language. It is far easier and more accurate to look at behaviour objectively.


When observing dogs avoid making assumptions about how the dog could be feeling and instead describe what is actually happening. The objective view might be to say; 'This dog is lip licking' or 'this dog is yawning'. By taking this approach, we avoid any unhelpful anthropomorphism (more on this later!).


Repetition

One thing I'm always on the look out for is repetition of behaviours. If I see the same behaviour over and over again then I'm going to be asking myself, what is this dog trying so hard to tell me?


Dogs are great at giving us clear signals about how they are feeling, but, sadly these often go unseen. Look out for repeated behaviours and switch up the picture if you see the same behaviour again and again. If your dog is uncomfortable, changing the picture early will ensure he has no need to escalate his behaviour.


In my opinion, most dog bites could easily be avoided if people knew how to read subtle canine body language.


Frequency

Look at how often the dog is offering us the behaviour.


Combination

Looking at what other behaviours the dog offers will give us a clearer insight in to the dogs emotional state. The dog that licks its lips, yawns and is turning its head away frequently may be feeling very differently to the dog that's just woken up from a nap and yawns.


Evaluate

Dogs do things for a reason and it is often difficult to recognise what that reason is. If you follow the above concepts then you will by now have a good understanding of your dogs emotional state.


Now it's time to ask yourself what the purpose of the dogs behaviour was and what was the outcome. Establishing the answer to these two questions will allow you to plan your next steps.


Do you want to find out more about canine body language?


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