Sunday Science: Listening with Your Eyes

Science Sunday posts are short posts about the science of animal behavior and training. They often feature a quote or a passage of text. Spend a moment today thinking about the ideas in the post. As always, you can share your thoughts or questions in the comments section.

Behavior Analysis Book Shelf

Recently, I’ve been reading the book Decoding Your Dog, by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. It’s an interesting book that explores common questions about dog behavior, the human-animal bond, and training solutions for unwanted dog behaviors. I’m almost done with the book and will publish a full review of the book on my site soon. (Update: You can find my full review of the book here.)

Ginger dog playing in the snowThe first chapter of the book is all about dog body language and dog communication. Jacqueline Neilson, the author of this chapter, writes “Sometimes our dogs must feel the way you would if you were dropped into a place where you don’t speak the language and no one speaks English!” Unfortunately, many times problem behaviors arise because people do not understand dog body language and do not understand normal dog behavior. Here’s a longer quote from the chapter that I found interesting:

“Michele Wan, PhD, and her colleagues recently showed videos of dogs to some human study participants. After each video, they gave the participants a little test, asking questions about the body postures and behaviors of the dogs they’d just viewed. Not surprisingly, the participants scored best on recalling the dogs’ vocalizations (growling and barking) but didn’t score so well at recalling the dogs’ body postures (tail position, ear carriage, and so on). This is probably because humans are primarily verbal communicators, so sounds are what we listen to and recall best.

When we are communicating with primarily nonverbal animals like dogs, we can miss a lot of important information if we don’t learn to listen with our eyes. Make an effort to observe your dog; if you see signs of anxiety, distress, or threatening behavior, step back and consider how you can avoid further escalating the situation.”

Jacqueline Neilson
Decoding Your Dog

From my experience working as a dog trainer, I have found that many people (even sometimes people who have lived with dogs for years) are not good at reading and interpreting dog body language. This can lead to some potentially scary and dangerous situations. For example, in almost all cases (as is discussed later in the book), a dog gives off multiple warning signals before biting. However, people often do not understand a dog’s potential triggers and do not notice changes in body language.

ginger plays with sam and simonIn many cases, I find people don’t even realize they should be paying attention to particular body positions and movements or watching for particular behaviors that indicate stress, fear, or happiness. In the group classes I teach, I try to help people understand more about dog body language and learn how to interpret how their dog is feeling. If you are interesting in learning more about dog body language, check out this article from the ASPCA. As well, Lili Chin has some excellent free handouts available on her website and Brenda Aloff’s book Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide is a great resource.

Want to improve your observational skills? Try taking some video of your dog interacting with people or with other dogs. Then, watch the video several times. Watch your dog’s tail, ears, eyes, mouth, and overall balance and movement. You’ll probably noticed things that you didn’t see at all while you were taking the video. If you’re brand new to canine body language, see if you can find a knowledgeable friend or even a dog trainer who can help you as you learn.

If you get a new pet, whether a dog, cat, hamster, or any other sort of creature, I would really encourage you to take the time to do some research and reading to learn more about your new friend. If you are more familiar with body language and with normal and abnormal behaviors, this will make training easier and improve your relationship with your pet.

Do you know how to listen with your eyes? Are you good at reading your pet’s body language? I know that when I first got pet rats several years ago, it took me awhile to learn how to interpret their body language! I’d also love to know if you have any favorite resources (books, websites, etc.) for learning about body language and behavior.

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