Body Language is a Dog’s First Language

Dogs are experts at body language; if you’ve ever watched a slowed down video of dogs interacting you will be amazed at all the subtle communication going on. That is, if you know what to watch for.

Learn to read subtle canine body language

It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.

Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.

  • Closed mouth
  • Look away or turn away
  • Lip licking
  • Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
  • Shaking off as if wet
  • Yawning when not sleepy
  • Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
  • Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
  • Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
  • Scratching
  • Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
  • Sniffing

Illustrations of dog body language indicating stress.

Videos of dog body language:

Dog’s Using Subtle Body Language to Avoid Greetings (to say “No, thank you” to the greeting opportunity)

Dog Body Language (by Fear Free Pets)

Understanding Dog Body Language Part 1 ;

Understanding Dog Body Language Part 2

What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed?

In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation.

In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs.  In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals.  She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals.  She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.

Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting.  In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger.  Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene.  The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.

On of the biggest mistakes people do when a dog growls

To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking.  They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning.  Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety.  Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours.  The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.

When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve.  Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.

Owners of over-reactive dogs or dog owners who want to prevent their dogs from becoming over-reactive (e.g. adolescent dogs) can contact me

“Bad” Dog or Stressed Dog?

infographic with three batteries labeled Mental, Emotional, Physical. The question at the top reads Do Your Dog's Batteries Nee Re-charging?

Reactive and Destructive Dog Behaviours

Consider this scenario:

For the past two weeks Fido’s person has been very busy working on home renovations and yesterday evening she invited some friends over.  When the doorbell rang, Fido ran to the front door, barking loudly as usual; Fido’s person yelled at him to stop but he kept barking.  She chased Fido away from the door to let the guests inside, but Fido ran up to meet the guests anyway. Fido has always been very excited when guests come over, but he seemed more excited than usual and started jumping up on the guests.  The people yelled at him to stop, but he continued jumping and started mouthing and nipping at clothing.  Fido’s person scolded him angrily, grabbed him by his collar, and put him in the spare bedroom. He whined and barked for 30 minutes and then was quiet.  A few hours later, after the guests left, Fido’s person opened up the bedroom door to find Fido sitting on the bed “looking guilty” next to a ripped up pillow.  She began to scold him. Fido turned his head and “ignored” her.  Fido’s person stepped toward the bed, intending to grab his collar and send him outside.  Fido crouched and urinated on the bed.

Is Fido a bad dog or a stressed dog?

Overly reactive and destructive behaviours are common symptoms of a stressed dog, and the disruption of home renovations can certainly affect our pets.  Add to this the excitement of guests, the tension of yelling and scolding, plus the frustration or anxiety of being alone or separated from family members, and it’s no wonder Fido behaved the way he did.  What could Fido’s person have done differently to help him?

Management is essential to improving a dog’s behaviour

An important first step is to try to prevent the rehearsal of the unwanted behaviours by managing the situation (the dog’s environment and access to things in the environment).  Set up the dog for success by recognizing his weaknesses and planning accordingly. Fido would have been better able to handle the excitement of guests if he had experienced a few days of things being back to his normal routine; the noise, chaos, and even smells of renovations can be highly stressful.  Since her dog normally gets excited by guests, Fido’s person could have prevented unwanted behaviours by having him on a leash when the guests arrived; or Fido could have been in a cozy, comfortable kennel in another room in the house, enjoying a special treat.  (Dogs can be trained to love being in their kennel, and this should be trained in advance before testing it out in a difficult situation.)  Leaving Fido in a highly amped up state in a room with nothing to occupy him is just asking for trouble, especially in the context of the stressful evening.

Avoid aversive, coercive, punishment-based dog training methods

Another step to improving a dog’s behaviour is avoiding aversive or punishment-based training methods.  When possible, take measures to help the dog make good choices that can be rewarded, and if the dog makes poor choices, don’t punish. This doesn’t mean you let the dog do what it wants. It means that punishing this behaviour will cause more problems. When Fido was barking and jumping up on the guests, yelling didn’t help stop his behaviour.  A highly aroused dog is unlikely to “register” what his person is saying is unlikely to respond appropriately; the dog is likely to understand the emotional state of the human with the raised voice, but the dog might end up becoming more stressed and agitated by the yelling human. Who knows, the dog might think that his person is upset and “barking along” for the same reason the dog is.  Yelling, scolding, intimidation, and physical altercations usually increase the stress levels of both the dog and the person, and this can result in an escalation of the unwanted behaviour, new undesirable behaviours, and a weakening of the trust and bond the dog has with the person.

Learn how to “speak dog”

The third step to preventing problem behaviours is learning how to “speak dog.” Dogs communicate mainly through body language, and humans tend to ignore or misinterpret many of the subtle and quick signals.  When Fido’s person entered the bedroom, Fido instantly read her body language (anger) and responded with an appeasement behaviour (ears back, eyes soft).  When Fido’s person started to yell, he offered another calming signal (look away/head turn).  When that didn’t seem to work, Fido offered a “louder” signal: submissive urination.  He was doing all he could to reduce the tension and avoid a conflict.  From Fido’s perspective, the ripping of the pillow was not connected in any way to his owner’s anger.  Dogs are not mind readers and unless two events occur in close proximity, dogs will not make the connection.  Yelling while pointing at the ripped pillow or rubbing the dog’s nose in it might make the human feel better (punishment can be rewarding to the punisher), but it will not communicate anything to the dog except that his owner is unpredictable and violent and should be feared.

“F Responses” Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fidget, Fawn, Fool Around

Acknowledging a dog’s limitations, planning a response rather than reacting, and understanding dog communication can go a long way to helping a dog through a stressful event, but what about dogs who are “bad” all the time?

Excessive barking, marking, hyperactivity, destructive behaviour, aggressive displays, and house training problems can all be signs of stress, but by recognizing the earlier, subtle signs, many serious behaviour problems can be avoided.   Most dogs in their early stages of anxiety or uncertainty will do things like avert their eyes, blink frequently, lick their lips or nose, wrinkle the skin around their forehead and eyes, stop to scratch, tuck under their tail, and turn their head away from the thing causing stress.  They may also do things that seem out of context like yawning when they are not sleepy, panting when they aren’t hot or tired out, “shaking off” as if after a bath, and drooling when food is not present and there is no mouth injury.  Stress-related behaviours can also include whining, excessive grooming, tail chasing, and attempts to hide or escape.  Each dog is different and may favour some behaviours over others.  The important thing is to recognize the signals for what they are and manage the situation to help reduce the dog’s anxiety before it leads to unwanted behaviours.

In some cases, stress signals can escalate to threat signals (i.e. closing the mouth, freezing, lip lifting, showing teeth, growling, deeper barking, whites of the eyes showing, nose bumping, snarling, snapping the air) and then to a bite.  Often a growling, snarling, lunging dog is acting out of fear, showing an aggressive display because fleeing is not an option (i.e. he is on a leash, tied up, cornered, injured).  His earlier warning signals have been ignored or misinterpreted; now he is highly stressed, well beyond his threshold.  Unfortunately, a common consequence of this is that the dog eventually learns to stop giving the early warning signals because they haven’t been effective; instead, the dog learns to go straight to threat signals because that’s what has been working from the dog’s perspective. (Consider how responding with punishment to these anxiety-based behaviours is likely to cause more stress and make matters worse.)

When dogs have “too much Christmas”

Sometimes dogs overreact because of too much excitement.  Many dogs are over-stimulated by the sight of people or other dogs and they become impatient or frustrated by their inability to get closer to them; sometimes these dogs learn that lunging and pulling can get them closer. In many cases, these dogs need more distance and time to become desensitized to the sight of the trigger, but their humans are not aware of this and allow them to get closer before the dog is ready.  In many cases dogs with reactive behaviours can be rehabilitated; to do this handlers must recognize and respond to the early calming signals to keep these dogs below their threshold while controlling access to the triggers in the environment.

When reading a dog’s signals, it’s important to look at these behaviours in context. For example, when a dog exposes his belly, sometimes this is an open invitation to a belly rub; but sometimes this is a sign of fearful submission, and if you bend down to try to give the dog a belly rub you may get bitten. Tail wagging is another misunderstood signal. Is the dog wiggling his whole body when he’s wagging his tail? Is his body very forward and stiff when he’s wagging his tail like a flag up in the air? Tail wagging signals the dog’s level of excitement. Whether the tail is held high or low is a clue to the emotions behind that excitement (i.e. fear, friendliness).  Look at the whole picture to “read” a dog, and consult reputable resources or trainers if possible.

Chronic stress affects a dog’s health

Along with behavioural problems, dogs that are experiencing chronic stress often have physical symptoms such as allergies, skin conditions, poor coat condition, body odour, excessive shedding, poor or extreme appetites, and digestive problems (diarrhea, constipation, gas, sensitive stomach).  It’s important to take note of digestive problems, as these are often both a symptom and a cause of stress.  The digestive system is essential to the health of the immune and nervous systems; too much stress is one factor that can lead to gut dysbiosis, an imbalance in the gut flora that can cause hypersensitivity and cognitive and behavioural problems, adding to a dog’s stress levels.  A healthy gut is essential to reducing stress and improving a dog’s diet is an important step.

Reducing your dog’s stress

A dog’s stress levels can be reduced through other changes as well.  Reducing or removing stressors in the environment can help, even something as simple as closing the curtains or turning down the volume on the television. Massage can be helpful, as well as a variety of tools such as Thundershirts, Bach Flower remedies, and specifically designed music.  One of the simplest ways to reduce a dog’s stress levels is to let the dog get sufficient good quality rest or sleep.  In a study of stress in dogs, the most stressed dogs were the ones who got fewer than 17 hours of rest or sleep per day.  Exercise and activities seem to induce stress when they interfere with a dog’s rest.  High performance or highly stimulating activities, although fun, can also be stressful for dogs, and the study suggests that dogs require a lot of rest afterward. Think of a dog at daycare sleeping the entire next day at home. Be careful with sudden changes in routines, as these can be stressful; for example, an over-scheduled dog athlete needs to slowly reduce his schedule.

It’s difficult not to become upset when the dog is destroying our home or when our lives are turned upside down because of our dog’s unwanted behaviours.  We can improve things by learning to pay attention to what our dogs are telling us and by making changes to help reduce their stress.

As Easy as ABC

Two young children sitting at a wall-mounted easel, drawing on white paper with markers.
Wall-mounted easel (made by Kustom Kitties Canada)

This image illustrates a principle that is true for good teaching: provide the learner with an opportunity to perform a natural behaviour in a context that is preferred.

Young children like to draw on walls. Instead of punishing a child for doing a self-reinforcing behaviour that is very natural, why not create the conditions to help redirect that behaviour to a desirable location? Provide a wall mounted easel, a place to hold art supplies, and a couple of chairs.

This image illustrates the power of using antecedent arrangements to influence behaviour. (Antecedents are the factors that influence a behaviour before it occurs.) To change an undesirable behaviour, good teaching involves understanding what factors are causing the undesirable behaviour and then setting up the environment to encourage a preferred behaviour — a behaviour that can then be reinforced with attention and praise. The new behaviour is more likely to be repeated again, and the old behaviour is less likely to be repeated because it has become less reinforcing.

It’s as easy as ABC (Antecedent — Behaviour — Consequence).

Good Dog Trainers are Good Teachers

Good teaching — whether it’s teaching children, adults, or dogs — starts with A) an understanding of the learner and B) a desire to be kind. Good teaching (and dog training) requires clear communication, creating conditions so the learner can succeed, and being able to support the learner in the learning process. Gone are the days when students were strapped, swatted with rulers, or forced to stand in the corner or wear a dunce cap. Society no longer accepts this type of treatment of students, and years of good science proves how detrimental this is to the learner.

The dog training industry is changing to reflect this as dog training and behaviour professionals are catching up to advancements in teaching excellence. Dogs deserve the best in dog training.

An experiment

I understand that dogs are not children and that there may be some major differences in what people believe is appropriate, ethical, moral, and legal when raising and teaching children as opposed to raising and training dogs. However, it is interesting that if one looks at history, it wasn’t so long ago when there were very few laws protecting children; and if I recall what I read many years ago from a book about the history of animal welfare laws (its title escapes me because it was so long ago), I believe that the first animal welfare law in the USA (to protect horses) was enacted before child welfare laws. And one of the arguments to create child protection laws was the fact that surely there should be at least the similar protections for children as there were for horses.

It’s common to see posts by professional dog trainers who are very vocal about using shock collars, prong collars, etc. and often these trainers are very vocal in their opinions against force-free training/trainers. As an experiment in understanding the mindset of trainers who think differently from me, read a long post by an established and I’m sure very talented trainer. As I read the long post and the comments I couldn’t help but think about how the trainer’s words and the comments by the supportive dog owners might sound if they were used to describe children instead of dogs. Might those who expressed those beliefs about dogs, dog training, and dog trainers change their minds? Would the change reveal underlying biases, leaps in logic, contradictions, and cognitive dissonance of the writers and the readers?

Here is an example of a paragraph I revised. The original was from a trainer who promotes the use of shock/prong/choke collars. The trainer was outraged by the “stories and propaganda” that was being spread about these training collars.

“Leather straps and rattan canes have been the most common recipients of this bad press. And sure, you could definitely mess up a child with either of these tools – if that was your intent – just like you could with any object. But I see far more messed up kids who show up in my school who have parents who refuse to let their child be strapped or spanked.

I acknowledge that the people who expressed these opinions might not hold the same thoughts today — people are allowed to change their minds. We are all doing our best based on the information we have at the time.

I find it interesting to look back at the struggle to get corporal punishment removed from public schools — the resistance and the time it took — and compare it to what is happening in the dog training industry. I suspect that the momentum is building in North America, as it did in Europe years ago.

“Fake Conferences” in the Dog Training Industry

The unregulated dog training industry is a breeding ground for fraud and fakery. This has been a major problem for consumers looking for dog training help, but it’s also a major problem for dog trainers who are looking for educational/professional development opportunities — in particular, the problem of “fake” conferences.

What is a “fake” conference?

A “fake” conference has two main elements. Firstly, the purpose of a “fake conference” is to make a profit, and sometimes the organizers try to disguise this by making the conference look like it’s organized by a not-for-profit. To get enough interest for people to pay to attend, the organizers need to get some big names (or people that sound like they are experts). This leads to the second element of a “fake” conference: dubious content. A “fake”conference may a few big names listed as key speakers, who may or may not have agreed to present, or who may have initially agreed to present but then withdrew but their names yet remain on the list of speakers. There may also be presenters whose content lacks high standards of peer review, meaning, the conference organizers did not make the effort to screen the content to any reputable industry standards.

How to spot a “fake” conference?

Certainly, attendees don’t want to waste their money, and professionals who might be targeted to present at a “fake” conference certainly don’t want to damage their reputations by doing so. But how can one identify a “fake” conference before paying the fees, agreeing to present, or arriving at the conference and realizing your mistake?

Look carefully at the conference website. It’s not always the case, but the design of the site can provide clues that it’s not a reputable conference. Some examples of “red flags” include typos or poor grammar/spelling, images that are poor quality or looked stretched, links that don’t work, and contact information that is difficult to find and/or incorrect.

Examine the speaker’s list. Do you recognize any names? Can you find their websites? Do their credentials seem legitimate or do they have exaggerated claims and vanity awards? Why not try to contact them to confirm they are speaking? (Or, in the case of some “fake” conferences, let them know they have been listed as a speaker without their consent.)

What about the name of the conference and the name of the organizer? Do you recognize it as a well-established conference? Is the name of the conference very similar to a popular conference in the field? Does the organizer seem to be a business that arranges a lot of conferences?

Protecting yourself from fraud and fakery isn’t always easy, especially with more sophisticated schemers. Here are some helpful links so you can learn more about the problem of “fake” conferences, how you can avoid them, and how you might help to prevent the growth of this problem in our industry.

Inside a “Fake” Conference: A Journey Into Predatory Science

Predatory Conference Scammers are Getting Smarter

9 Signs a conference is fake

Seven Telltale Signs that a Conference is a Scam

“Fake news. Fake journals. Fake conferences. What we can do”

What to Do About Fake and Predatory Conferences

Proposed Criteria for Identifying Predatory Conferences

(Photo by Charles Deluvio on UnSplash)

Can E-collars Be Used for Positive Reinforcement Training?

Is it possible?

Can an e-collar be used for positive reinforcement training?

It is possible but only under these conditions:

  1. the dog is conditioned to have a positive emotional response to the collar (including the sight of the collar and the wearing of the collar even if it’s not activated)
  2. the collar is never used as a “correction” (giving the dog a “stim” as a consequence to doing an undesirable behaviour or stopping the “stim” as a consequence of doing the desired behaviour)
  3. the collar never causes any level of discomfort to the dog. Ever.

Let’s unpack that.

Conditioning a dog to have a positive emotional response to the e-collar requires several components. Firstly, the collar must be set to deliver a sound, vibration, or extremely minimal level of “stim” so the dog does not experience any physical or emotional discomfort. The dog is the one who decides if the sound, vibration, or “stim” causes discomfort or anxiety. It doesn’t matter if the human doesn’t think the experience is uncomfortable or worrisome; what matters is the dog’s perspective. (Even the clicker in clicker training can be an aversive to a dog if they don’t like the sound.)

Determining if a dog is experiencing physical or emotional distress can be very difficult, and even very experienced trainers often miss the signs, even with their own dogs.*  The human MUST be extremely good at reading the very subtle changes in the dog’s body language (e.g. nose licks, yawning, look aways, tightness around the mouth, dilated pupils, slowing down of movement). Dogs have been known to hide their pain, and dogs can show pain or emotional distress in ways that humans misinterpret as “obedience” or “good manners.” For example, dogs that are stressed can shut down emotionally and even “freeze” (Fight/Freeze/Flight response), and dogs in pain can appear more quiet, calm, or still, and some may appear more alert. Some trainers even purposefully use aversive tools and techniques to “rev up” or “activate” their dogs, perhaps not realizing this might be due to discomfort and stress.

If the dog’s experience of the stimulus of the e-collar (the sound, vibration, or extremely mild “stim”) is not negative in any way, then pairing it with a reinforcer like food (or a conditioned reinforcer) can condition the dog to have a positive emotional response to it. The sound/vibration/extremely mild “stim” can then be used as a marker for a desired behaviour, and with correct timing of the human with the remote, will communicate to the dog that the behaviour “correct.”

BUT, if the e-collar’s sound/vibration/’stim” is later used at an intensity that causes the dog any physical or emotional discomfort, the dog’s positive emotional response will quickly degrade. Even after one experience. Instead, the dog will develop a negative emotional response to the sound/vibration/”stim” (and possibly to the collar itself, as well as any other associations the dog may have connected to the experience, including the location, the trainer, the activity).

Cognitive Dissonance Can Make Us Blind to Logic

I just finished listening to a podcast where the hosts discuss how e-collars work. They clearly point out that the device causes enough discomfort to cause the dog to stop a behaviour (or to avoid doing a behaviour) because that’s how aversive tools work, but they insist that they are not causing their dogs physical pain when they use it. Their defence is that they don’t register it as painful when they give themselves a “stim,” and they don’t see any evidence in their dog’s behaviour to indicate it’s painful.  (Emotional distress is not acknowledged as a consideration.) Yet they spend a fair amount of time pointing out that one person’s experience of the “stim” of an e-collar can be very different from another person’s experience of the same level of intensity. They acknowledge that the anticipation that the device will cause pain: “An e-collar has the value you give it. If you go into it thinking that the e-collar is a pain tool, it’s gonna deliver you pain no matter what comes out of it. Even if it’s nothing.” Now read that substituting the word “dog” for the word “you.” They recognize from the human end that the anticipation of pain/discomfort can result in actually feeling it, but they do not acknowledge that this can happen from the dog’s viewpoint, as well.  (Note: the anticipation of pain/discomfort is also called “fear“.)

As studies on dogs advance, especially with advances in neuroimaging and functional MRIs, perhaps we’ll have more science-based information on how dogs experience emotional and physical “pressure” when aversive training methods and tools are used, rather than relying on the opinions of dog trainers who insist the dogs are not feeling any physical or emotional distress.

*I remember seeing a video a “balanced” trainer posted online trying to demonstrate how gentle a prong collar was to a dog. (This trainer also promoted the use of shock collars, but not in this particular video. The video isn’t up anymore.) It was obvious to me the dog was showing signs of stress (head hanging low, appeasement behaviours). This same trainer attended a dog class with me — her dog was in a flat collar for the class — and I noticed her dog never really looked happy in the class. Except when the owner asked me to hold onto her dog’s leash while she left the area to use the washroom. That’s when the dog visibly relaxed. My heart broke for this dog and I wondered if the owner even realized how her aversive methods affected her dog, even when the dog was not wearing an aversive collar. I’m sure she loves her dog and would find it very distressing to know that her aversive methods could be causing her dog distress and ruining their bond and relationship. 

Can E-collars be used to reinforce a desired behaviour?

So, can e-collars be used for positive reinforcement training? It is highly unlikely, even with the most skilled trainers on this planet. And certainly not for the average dog owner who is bound to make a lot of training mistakes, even under the guidance of the best dog trainer in the world; this is a big reason why e-collars should not be sold without a licence, but that is a topic for another day. This should make one consider why a trainer would continue to use an e-collar, which leads to another related topic: how using punishment can be reinforcing to the punisher.