There’s that moment when he looks up, his big brown eyes searching your eyes, and you wonder — ‘what’s he thinking?’
Actually, whenever you’re with him, your dog is acutely aware of you and watching you closely, interpreting the way you’re feeling through a combination of your body language, facial expression and tone of voice.
Most of all, dogs are conscious of body language, both that of other dogs and of us humans. And, unlike us, body language is their first language.
A dog uses his whole body, from nose to tail, to communicate with other dogs, and indeed humans. To send out signals such as ‘come and play’ or ‘back off’.
That’s why the way you stand, your gestures and intonation, can profoundly affect your dog’s behaviour. Because dogs will pay attention and respond to our body language, even when we are attempting to communicate something quite different with our words.
There is also a marked difference between human body language and that of dogs, and you may find you are sending mixed messages even when words are not involved.
But by using body language correctly you can help your dog feel at ease with you and, with a little attention and persistence, you can become adept in sending the right signals to help your dog behave well.
Making a safe ‘hello’
When we meet another person, it is polite to make eye contact. However, to dogs, direct eye contact is seen as dominant behaviour and can be interpreted as a threat, whilst looking to the side is a sign of respect or deference.
So when greeting a dog you don’t know, and especially one who appears rather timid or nervous, it is best to crouch down so that you are at his level, and look slightly off to the side as opposed to making too much direct eye contact. And rather than bringing your hand down to stroke the top of his head, draw your hand up from his chest to his head.
Putting a stop to jumping up
Conversely, your dog may get extremely excited when he sees you, or when a visitor arrives, and immediately start jumping up on you or your visitor.
This can be extremely frustrating and your instinct may be to try pushing him away or holding him down by his collar — and find yourself getting quite heated in the process.
Unfortunately, any physical action like that is likely to be interpreted by your dog as play, and have the opposite effect. Similarly, making direct eye contact will reinforce his excited behaviour rather than deter it.
Much better is to stand still and look away from your dog with your arms folded — and remember to breathe! Holding your breath will convey anxiety; instead breathe evenly and slowly, and counter his exuberance with calm (even if, at first, you may be finding it difficult to stay calm).
Once he has all four paws back on the ground, display the kind of behaviour you want him to use. Move slowly and fluidly and speak in a steady, soothing tone of voice with a bit of calm, affectionate petting.
In this way communicate to your dog that jumping up loses your attention, whilst good, calm behaviour is rewarded.
Come here — but it’s no good shouting!
Recall is one of the most difficult commands to teach a dog. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to find yourself alternately yelling at your dog or begging him to come.
I know. I’ve been there. But there is, thankfully, a better way.
As soon as you lose your temper, you lose your position of authority with your dog: how can you be the leader when you’re angry and have lost control of your emotions?
Instead, speak firmly but calmly and stand tall, your body language echoing your words.
Let your words and body speak the same language of quiet authority.
Alternatively, if this doesn’t get your dog to come, you can try a different strategy — turn your back and crouch down. This body language signals a calm and non-threatening demeanour, and extends an invitation for him to join you.
Most dogs will respond to this, and when he comes reinforce the behaviour by giving him a treat and praise.
If crouching down doesn’t do the trick, perhaps for example in the early days of you being together, try jogging away from him. Few dogs can resist following if you turn your back and start walking or running away — there may be play involved! And, indeed, when he comes to you, indulge him in a bit of play time before offering a treat and praise.
Follow my lead
Some dogs, our pointer Charlie amongst them, find it difficult to walk to heel on the lead. Instead, in their enthusiasm, their instinct is to strain and pull on the lead to get ahead.
If this is the case with your dog, try changing directions when he starts to pull. Turn around and start walking in the opposite direction. Then change directions just on the spur of the moment, so your dog learns that he needs to keep his attention on you.
Slowly, through your body language, you’re teaching him that you’re the one in charge, the one who decides the speed and in which direction you walk.
Letting your body do the talking
Pay attention to what your dog’s body language is saying and respond appropriately. If he is shying away and acting timid, soften your body language and use a gentler tone of voice. If your dog is becoming over-excited and not paying attention to you, stand tall and use a firmer tone of voice.
Consistency is key. Just as we saw above in training your dog not to pull on the lead, your dog can work out your level of confidence just from your body posture.
If, when giving your dog a command, you look away, let your body slouch and your shoulders droop forward, your dog will notice and interpret this as lack of conviction. Conversely, show your confidence and resolve in your body language — by making eye contact and standing tall, confident and calm — and you will make strides in establishing your role as your dog’s leader.
Try it now, by acting out different body postures with your dog. Make your gestures clear and a bit theatrical, so that your dog can easily isolate the signals you are sending out.
Notice how changing your posture also affects your own emotions and energy. A confident and relaxed stance will put your dog at ease — and help you to remain calm and in control of your emotions and your dog’s behaviour.
A language shared
The canine’s ability to understand how we’re feeling underpins the special bond we have with our dog. When your words and body language are sending out the same message to your dog, you reach a new level of mutual understanding.
With confident, calm and consistent use of body language, you will see that you are not only helping your dog behave, but also strengthening the rapport between you.
Now over to you. Next time your dog is, say, over-excited and jumping up, compose yourself and channel that sense of inner tranquility (even if you’re not entirely — quite yet — feeling it)! Stand tall and still, and with your tone of voice and body language bring a calm but affectionate authority to the situation. Be the change you want to see in your dog!