Has your pet ever become happy, excited or sheepish… before you’ve even said a word? That’s because dogs are as responsive to your body language as they are to your tone of voice. Here’s how your dog perceives those silent signals and how you can use them to help change his behaviour in positive ways.
Reading your emotions
'If you watch your dog in the park, you’ll immediately see the way he communicates with and reacts to other dogs,’ says animal behaviour expert Inga MacKellar. 'Canines are highly tuned to pick up on every tiny move: from a dog striking an aggressive, stiff posture to a friendly dog with an open, playful stance, or a nervous dog looking away and licking its lips. Dogs rely enormously on this canine body language to assess their social situations.
'And they do exactly the same with humans,’ she says. 'Your dog will be watching your every move, and will pick up on even the most unintentional or subtle of cues. At times, your unconscious body signals can be very confusing and intimidating for him, which can be stressful because dogs dislike unpredictability. But, on other occasions, he’ll know exactly what a smile or come-and-cuddle look means and will react just as joyfully in response.’
'You may think that your body language is a good indicator of your mood, but your dog could be interpreting those subtle cues quite differently to how you’d expect,’ Inga says. Here’s how your pet perceives your most common emotional signals, and why he might react in the way that he does:
If you’re feeling blue, you might not be interacting with your dog as much as usual or, to help yourself feel better, you might even be 'over-cuddling’ him. To him this can be confusing, and he may appear to 'play up’ as he is unsure what is happening. You’ll most likely see this in your dog as a display of attention-seeking behaviours, such as barking or pawing.
You might think that you’re concealing your irritation, but your dog will immediately pick up that your body is tense and more rigid than usual. This may be intimidating to him, and in response he may look timid and sheepish – a reaction most owners thinks is a guilty or ashamed look. However, your pent-up anger can also cause anxiety in your dog, leading him to try to remove himself from the situation or even to growl defensively.
When you’re more animated, you’re possibly also waving your hands about, and your tone of voice becomes higher. This can be extremely stimulating for your dog, making him excitable too, and likely to jump up. But watch out: over-stimulating your pet will mean he needs an outlet somewhere. To avoid the playful nips that some dogs are prone to giving when they’re worked up, make sure he gets plenty of exercise to burn off his excitement and energy.
Communicating through body language
Once you're aware of how much your dog observes your moods and signals, you have a powerful tool at your disposal: a way to alter his actions. Here's how you can modify your body language and tweak your verbal commands to help change these unwanted behaviours in your dog:
‘When a puppy jumps up, it's only natural to want to lean down and pet him,' Inga says, ‘which reinforces in his mind that this is a good way to interact. But when he's a big, muddy adult, jumping up is rarely welcome. You may then flap your arms up in the air in agitation, and raise your voice, but your dog can see this as excited or confrontational behaviour and jump up more to appease you.
‘Instead, stay calm and turn your back on your dog so that you're not rewarding him with any interaction while he's jumping up. Then, once he's stopped jumping and has all four legs on the ground, turn and talk to him in reward. Over time he'll eventually learn that this is how he will get the greeting he wants.'
Anxiety and defensiveness
If your dog has previously chewed the sofa or had an accident on the floor while you were out of the room, or the house, it's normal to dread the next time this might happen. But this anticipation unknowingly feeds into your body language, too – and every time you walk in on your dog, you might subconsciously tense up in case it has happened again.
'Your dog won't understand why you have such a confrontational stance – all he'll see is your bunched-up posture. That may make him anxious and he'll probably cower as an act of appeasement,' Inga explains. 'To avoid this anxiety, try to make being reunited with you a good experience for your dog (no matter how long you've actually been apart). If your dog has made a mess, it might be hard to control your temper, but to ensure your pet doesn't interpret your cues as confrontation, you'll need to take a deep breath and mindfully relax your body language. Then call him out of the room without telling him off, and calmly clear up while keeping your tone of voice friendly to diffuse the situation.'
This might feel like you're letting him get away with it, but keep in mind that your dog will have no understanding that what you're angry and shouting about is connected to what he did a few minutes (or even hours) ago. While it might feel good to vent in the moment, this can lead to a vicious cycle where your dog becomes more and more anxious – and then behaves more destructively as a result.
Case study: Teaching recall through body language
Jean Bennett owns Bella, a Golden Retriever who is usually well behaved. 'But lately Bella's recall has been very bad,' she says. 'I like to let her off the lead to have fun in the park, but she often just ignores me when I call her name.'
'Body language plays more of a role in this open kind of setting than you might imagine,' Inga says. 'Jean's dog will be able to see from a mile away if she's angry or agitated, and it'll deter her from wanting to return.
'If you're in this situation, you should crouch down and call your dog enthusiastically so he'll see that there isn't a threat, and he will then be keen to greet you. Once he has returned to you, make sure not to stand over him and not to tell him off – no matter how exasperated you feel. Again, your dog will see this as a reason not to come back, and he'll need to learn that coming back to you is always a positive experience. To reinforce this, really praise him, give him a small treat or play a game every time he does come back.'