The Attentive Look of a Dog in Training

Researchers investigate the body language of a dog that is performing well in training.

Happy Golden Retriever in a positive reinforcement training session
Photo: Victoria Rak (Shutterstock.com)

By Zazie Todd, PhD

This page contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

A new study puts dogs through the first stage of a basic training task and analyzes eye contact and posture in the most successful dogs. The research by Masashi Hasegawa et al (Azabu University School of Veterinary Medicine) is motivated by a desire to improve people’s training abilities by helping them recognize the posture associated with successful learning. 

One of the neat things about this paper is that the study was done with completely untrained dogs. For obvious reasons, many canine science studies use well-behaved pet dogs of the kind that is calm when taken to a strange location like a university laboratory. While these studies are valuable, not all dogs are well-socialized and it’s important that research considers all kinds of dogs. What better dog for a study of dogs-in-training than one that is totally untrained?!

The dogs live at a place called the World Ranch in Osaka, Japan. 46 dogs took part, aged 1 to 6.5 (average 3 years), and a wide mix of breeds.

Training was carried out by someone previously unknown to the dogs, in sessions of 5 minutes each that took place in the dogs’ exercise yard. The handler used food to lure the dog into a sit position. He only did this when he had the dog’s attention, but he did it as many times as he could in the 5 minute session. After this, there was a 3 minute rest, followed by a test in which the hand signal was performed on its own (without food) 20 times.

Every time the dog sat on request, whether in the training session or the test, it was given a piece of food.

Each dog had three sessions like this a day, for three days, to make a total of nine sessions. The sessions were videoed so that the dogs’ body language could be analyzed.

The results showed a positive correlation between the number of trials in the training session and the number of correct responses in the tests. In other words, practice makes perfect: the more practice a dog had, the better it performed on the test. In addition, the age of the dog was not linked to the number of correct responses; dogs could learn at any age.

A happy dog sits in a dog training session
Photo: Markus Balint / Shutterstock


The dogs were divided into two groups for further analysis: those that had performed especially well on the tests, and the rest. This meant the body language of dogs that are successfully learning could be compared to those that are performing less well.

The high-achieving dogs had their eyes wide open, their mouths closed, their ears forward, and their tails were high but not wagging. Surprisingly, the researchers consider this in terms of dominance, the open eyes being seen as dominant but the other aspects of the posture not. It does not make sense to consider the relationship between dog and trainer as one of dominance; the dog is trying to understand how to earn the treat, and if it hasn’t figured it out yet then it shows a need for the trainer to make it clear.

The most interesting finding is that the wide eyes occurred mostly when the dog looked up at the handler’s face, showing that gaze from the dog to the handler is important in training. This is in line with Braem and Mills (2010), who also found a positive association between dogs looking at the handler and their performance in learning. Deldalle and Gaunet (2014) found that dogs trained using positive reinforcement gaze more at their owners during the sit command and when walking on leash than dogs trained using negative reinforcement, demonstrating a better relationship between dog and owner in the R+ group.  

This study only looked at the stage of using a lure. Dogs did not progress beyond this, even though they responded to the lure many times. One Papillon had 194 trials! (That must have been a happy dog). 

Even starting with a completely untrained dog, it is possible to teach ‘sit’ quickly. It would be nice to see the research repeated using an incremental training plan that progresses via hand signal to a verbal command. It's also possible body language will change in response to continued training, and future research could follow dogs as they learn a set of commands.

In fact the initial lure, although exactly where you would start, is too difficult for some dogs. When this is the case, it would be more appropriate just to expect their head to follow the lure, without going into a full sit at the beginning.  

We should be able to say that any dog training book will explain how to teach your dog the basics, but sadly this is not the case. Some books still recommend the use of unnecessary aversive techniques; if a book suggests hitting your dog, jerking the leash, or doing a so-called ‘alpha’ roll, discard it and choose another book instead!  (To learn more, see my post can dog training books be trusted? which includes some of my suggestions for good books).

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life." 

What’s your favourite dog training book and why?

You might also like: The ultimate dog training tip and how to choose a dog trainer.
 
Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and one cat. 


Reference
Braem, M. D., & Mills, D. S. (2010). Factors affecting response of dogs to obedience instruction: A field and experimental study. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125(1-2), 47-55.
Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9(2), 58-65.
Hasegawa, M., Ohtani, N., & Ohta, M. (2014). Dogs’ body language relevant to learning achievement. Animals, 4(1), 45-58.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an Etsy affiliate and Marks and Spencer affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Follow me!

Support me