Canine Body Language (and why context matters)

by Jenny Ruth Yasi, CPDT-KA

Canine body language reading has become a “fad.” People look at a picture of a dog, describe the lift of the ear, the flick of the tail, the curl of the lip, the stance etc and then “read” the body language. I’m sure you’ve seen trainers observe dogs and state with certainty that the dog is “fearful” or whatever. I do it too, telling people, “your dog needs to poop” or “he’s asking for water” and when that appears true, they look at me like I’m a pet psychic.

But I’m not.

Think about how this works with people. Look at this image, for example. Great people at a dog event. What can you read from the body language? Honestly, not much, but knowing the context is a big help! People waiting. Focused on a speaker. You start guessing. But human body languages, like canine, are built over habits and many emotions going on at the same time, and we can’t read anyone’s mind from looking at a photograph. Amirite?

Oh how about look at this video, it’s got some great examples of canine body language. First please listen to it with the sound off and see if you can guess what’s going on here.

It’s actually a pretty interesting example of lots of classic, “easy” pieces of canine body language for you to read, and there is even some context shown, to be fair. Now listen to it again with the sound up. How did you do? Were you close? I’ll give you a little more context. The dude with the box is Charlie and he was nearly dead of starvation, a feral dog, when we brought him home from Puerto Rico a few years before this video was made. So he was well recovered, and he’s eaten many boxes I’m sure in his lifetime, so I always let him shred and eat a little bit of boxes if he wanted. It helped him handle the frustration of waiting for breakfast. The poodly girl was about 8 years old, I had her from 8 weeks, so she was my “old pro,” at waiting for breakfast and the yawning hound had been rescued almost one year previously, so she was the most recent addition to the pack, and still learning what she needed to do to get breakfast delivered. And she was best friends with Charlie.

Yes, sure, great that you noticed the yawn! Yawns are great little stress relievers, and we humans ywn too. But she wasn’t “terribly” stressed. One of the problems of this fad of canine body language reading is that people exaggerate what they see. OMG the dog YAWNED! That’s like, OMG the kid twirled her hair with her fingers!! We are always expressing little bits of tension and anxiety, little splashes of excitement and frustration, nervousness and boredom. We are full of all sorts of thoughts, emotions, feelings and we express them. They are fluid and changeable.

Of course it’s important to see how a dog is RESPONDING to various situations. “Response” is all about looking at body language in context. And so you’re maybe seeing how Charlie expressed some impatience (I want breakfast!), and the other dogs were in agreement. I don’t know but it seems as if Charlie was the spokesperson and Bee was the diplomat. Tiger was just staying out of trouble, confident that she didn’t need to say anything. Then you see how they react to what I said, and the only reason they react that way is because they’ve heard those words before. Notice how my poodly girl looks completely relaxed, laying on the couch. That doesn’t mean she isn’t every bit as anxious, excited, “stressed” as the other dogs. It means, she is choosing a behavior that has been highly rewarded in the past. She is performing learned behavior.

I’m not keen on pet psychics. We can’t “read” body language in ANY animal like we “read” a book. For example, what is this guy thinking?

Out of context, it looks like he’s waiting for a bus. But what Bernie said is that he was pretty much overcome with emotion, watching the inauguration. He was reflecting.I bet he was thinking about his own journey. He was not cold. And doesn’t Bernie usually look like that?

I’m not saying body language doesn’t matter. It’s very helpful to observe your dog’s body language and see how she acts in different contexts. Watch her body language when you serve dinner, when you get out the nail clippers, when she sees another dog, when she a friend knocks on the door versus a stranger. You get so you can tell, “oh, that body language means daddy, and this other body language means the UPS guy.” Watch her body language in the veterinarian waiting room (see the dander poof out of her coat?). And then you see the dander poof out in another situation and realize, oh, she might be nervous. How does YOUR dog express that she needs to pee? How does she ask for water? How does your dog show you that she doesn’t feel well? But can you tell if your dog has a toothache? Probably not from a photo, and maybe not even from a video.

Many dogs have quirky body language. Their friendly “grin” looks like a snarl, or they freeze and slink around, but they are just being polite and careful. No one can see a photo or a brief out-of-context video clip of a “wall eye” or a pricked ear, and read the dog’s mind. Just like humans, body language is about itches, arthritis, learned behaviors, indigestion, and not just about emotions. Body language can be intentionally deceptive. Much like humans, dog can bluff and act confident, when actually they are afraid.

My poodle girl used to sometimes appear like she was on her best behavior, when she was actually plotting to blast off after a squirrel. Actually her behavior in this video is a great example of how she looks when she is “plotting.” Resting, relaxed and calm, but maybe plotting to get that box when Charlie wasn’t looking.

“Analyzing body language,” can be helpful, entertaining fun and there is surely a grain of truth to it. But don’t fall for the “pet psychic” extremes of this fad. We can’t “read” canine body language any easier than we can “read” human body language. Can anyone read your body language like a book? They can certainly try, but they might be mistaken.

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