Using body language to communicate with your dog is a skill that takes practice but a lot of communication will develop naturally as a bond between you is created.
When you use body language, whether you are crouching down to invite your dog to come, speaking emphatically to get her attention, or giving her a look that reminds her to stay off the furniture, it is important to be objective and somewhat theatrical. When you are a visitor in a foreign country struggling with the language, you want the native speaker to talk slowly and clearly and to use a tone of voice and gestures that will help you understand. Dogs need this same consideration when they are learning from us; they are expert readers of body language, but they need help isolating those cues that are important at the moment.
The emotional energy is your voice has tremendous power to evoke all kinds of emotional responses. It is one of your most important tools. Try this simple exercise to experience how tone of voice can affect your feelings. Read the words into a tape recorder or ask a friend to read them to you:
- Close your eyes and listen to someone read the word “sit” in different voices – questioning, angry, pleading, coaxing, demanding, hopeful, nervous, and pleasant but emphatic.
- Wait for a count of ten after each read. Allow time to feel your emotional response to the different tones. In the silence, imagine that you are your dog, listening to that tone of voice. Did you notice that the different tones of voice evoked different emotions in you?
When you speak sharply to a dog – and sometimes it is necessary to do this – you can sound severe, but you need to indicate strong disapproval without really feeling angry. Remember, you are only being theatrical; do not get sucked into feeling negative. Remain objective.
Your eyes and facial expression
Dogs are masters of subtlety; they pay attention to the tiniest details in an encounter and use their eyes to indicate a range of attitudes from aggression to acceptance. Therefore, they are extremely sensitive to the energy that you send when you look at them. A prolonged intense stare is considered very aggressive and dominant in dog language. A neutral look is a soft gaze at the whole body. In a submissive look, the eyes are averted.
Practice facial expressions and eye contact with your dog to test your ability to elicit a response:
- First make a sound to get her attention
- If you keep your eyes open and relaxed and send love, how does she respond?
- If you raise your eyebrows, smile widely, or open your mouth at the same time, does her response change?
If you see your dog is about to do something inappropriate, try to prevent it by narrowing your eyes, staring a little, and projecting disapproval. If this not not stop her, try increasing the severity of the stare and frowning. Or pull down the corners of your mouth and scowl fiercely. Remember, be a little theatrical. You will learn how much drama you need to cause a reaction. In the case of eye contact, it is the intensity and the duration of the stare that are the most effective. (Caution: Do not do this with a dominant dog who has a tendency to growl or bite.)
Try acting out different body postures with your dog. Notice how changing your posture affects your own energy and emotions; it will show you the kind of energy you are sending out. A relaxed, confident stance not only puts your dog at ease but also helps you, because keeping your muscles loose sends a signal to your brain to relax and stay calm. However, if you allow yourself to slouch and reduce your body posture as a result of insecurity, you are indicating submission. This is detrimental, because the dog will pick up on your hesitancy and wonder if he needs to comply with your wishes. An insecure dog can become more insecure, and a more assertive dog can feel that he needs to assume control of the situation, since you aren’t able to. Both will have more difficulty responding positively to you, because of your mixed signals.
Other body posture issues concern the size of our bodies as well as the way we move. Because dogs watch human body language so closely, those that have not been properly socialized with children early in life can sometimes be fearful of them. To a large extent, this is so because children move differently and more unpredictably than adults. Dogs can also be more fearful of men than of women because men are frequently larger, their voices are deeper, and their gestures are bolder, which usually makes them look more dominant.
Your body language and your dog’s temperament
Using your body as an instrument of communication will vary according to a dog’s temperament. If you have an inhibited dog, you will need to keep lots of lightness, warmth, and encouragement in your eyes and voice as well as maintain a casual, relaxed posture to help convince her that life isn’t as bad as she thinks it is.
If you use babbling, happy talk with an excitable dog, however, it will be like grabbing the tail of Halley’s comet! That’s too much sensory input; you will need to keep your voice calm, low, and steady and your energy centered. When you look at him, make your gaze loving but clear, expressing a sense of being calm.
In addition to the importance of the tone of your voice and the use of your body language, you will need to create a vocabulary of signals for cuing your dog. Suggestions for directive vocabulary are as follows:
Let’s go. Use this phrase when you and the dog are going somewhere together, usually on a leash. Do not use “Come on” because you need to save “Come” for times when the dog is at a distance from you and you want him to come quickly to you.
Sit. This directs your dog to assume a sitting position. Do not allow any other position if this is what you are asking for.
Down. Use this to mean “Lie down.” Lying quietly on the side is all right, but the dog should not be rolling around and out of control.
Come. This means the dog is to come to you as fast as possible. Only use this word for this signal!
Heel. With this, you ask the dog to walk with her neck and should even with your leg at all times, to maintain that position regardless of your pace or direction, and to sit automatically when you stop.
Stay. The dog is to remain exactly in the spot and body position you ask for and to hold that position until you release her or direct her to another action.
Wait. This means she is not to proceed any farther forward. This is different from “Stay,” which means “Freeze.” “Wait” means “Stop all forward motion.” This is especially beneficial to use at car and house doors.
Free. This a release cue that tells the dog she can relax. It’s like saying, “All done.” Do not use “Okay” as a release word because we use the word constantly in conversation – often with the same voice inflection — which could cause confusion if you need our dog to stay in one place while you talk to someone.