Paying Attention to Our Dogs

We can all learn when we decide to observe dogs in interaction with people.

A woman pays attention to her Labrador dog's body language

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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I think most people who use reward-based training methods do so for ethical reasons: they believe it’s the right way to train a dog. They also know it works.

Science is on their side. A recent review of the literature on how people train pet dogs concluded that reward-based training is best for welfare reasons (and it works). Training dogs with aversive methods risks unintended consequences, such as the risk of stress, fear, and aggression. Reward-based training avoids those risks and gives dogs positive experiences.

But what if we can’t recognize signs of fear and stress in our dogs? Then we might not realize when our dogs are not happy.

Here’s where it gets tricky for dog owners, because many people aren’t very good at reading canine body language. Which is not surprising, because it’s not quite the same as ours. You have to pay close attention to pick up on some of the signs.

For example, when you reach out to pat your neighbour’s dog, does she lean in for more petting? Or does she duck her head away from your hand and then yawn and look away while you pet her?

Most dogs prefer not to be patted on the top of the head. They would prefer you to aim for the front of the chest or their side. (By the way, cats have preferences too). Seeing the dog’s body language in context helps you understand what it means (see for more info).

You can do your own mini science experiment and observe other people interacting with dogs. Find a place where lots of dogs go by and watch the interactions. Make a note of whether people seem to be familiar or strangers to the dogs.

Recognizing a happy dog is pretty straightforward, but sometimes people aren’t sure about the signs of stress.

Things to look out for include a lowered body posture, looking away, licking the lips, sniffing the ground, moving away, yawning, tail low or tucked under, and of course a growl. For more, including some practice photos, see how can I tell if my dog is afraid?

Sometimes it takes a growl before we notice a dog is unhappy; how much better for all if we spot it sooner?!

Look at your dog's body language to find out if they are happy- or not. This bearded terrier does not look very happy.
Photo: hannadarzy; top, FCSCAFEINE (both Shutterstock)

Nowhere is it more urgent people learn to read a dog’s body language than when a dog and a baby or young child are interacting. Young children are especially vulnerable to dog bites, and it’s essential their guardians know how to keep them safe. Unfortunately, many people believe dogs to be relaxed and friendly when they’re not – and dog owners are worse at spotting an unsafe dog-child interaction.

Once you can read canine body language, it’s a sad fact that so many photos and videos you previously thought were cute now set your teeth on edge because they look like an incident waiting to happen. (See the danger hidden in plain sight in photos of dogs and children, and follow Reisner Veterinary Behaviour on Facebook to see lots of examples deconstructed).

We think we know dogs. All of us, as a society, think we know them. But once you start to pay close attention, you realize there’s still a lot to learn.

We need scientists to do the studies because they understand how to design experiments with controls, how to word survey questions so the answers aren’t biased, and how many dogs need to participate. (Lots of dogs, we love all the dogs!).

We can all learn something from scientists’ close skills of observation. Pay attention to dogs – your dog, your friend’s dog, complete stranger’s effervescent Poodles and nosey hounds. Pay attention to the wide waggy tails and wiggly bodies. And start trying to spot those subtle signs of stress. See if it helps your understanding of dogs.

And of course, pay attention to your own dog in a training session. Are you seeing big licks of the lip that mean your dog knows he is about to get a cookie? Does your dog have a happy, relaxed open mouth, as if he is enjoying the session? Is his focus on you, waiting to see what you want him to do next?

If you pay attention, you know when he’s lost interest and it’s time to take a break; you know which of the rewards in your treat pouch is his favourite (or maybe it’s variety?); and you see how much he enjoys working for those rewards.

We can all learn from paying more attention to our canine friends, whether it’s knowing when an interaction is not so safe, better training technique, or even how best to pet a dog.

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