In this segment of understanding how to communicate, I am going to give a detailed account of how dogs learn from us. This is important, because if we know what a dog’s learning process is, then we can better understand why they are doing (or not doing) what we expect of them.
Note, when I am training people to learn to communicate, I explain both how humans teach and how dogs learn. We only teach through praise and only when a dog is making a choice.
The #1 Way Dogs Learn
The number one way a dog learns from us is from our body language. And remember that the only way we teach a dog is through praise. If you look at each of these things separately, they begin to make very good sense.
When your dog is making a choice and you praise her for making that choice, you are teaching her. Your body language has a lot to do with your dog’s learning, because it conveys either positive or negative attention.
How your dog perceives your body language will determine whether she thinks it is praise or correction. If she continues to do what she is doing, then her perception was praise, even though you thought you were correcting.
Remember, a correction is only a correction when your dog stops doing what she is doing and pays attention to you.
It usually takes about six months for the owner too see the true behavior and true personality of their new dog. What I figured out is that it takes about this amount of time for a dog to figure out the owner’s body language.
When you are happy, sad, serious, or not-so-serious, you give off certain signals, or language, with your body that represents those emotions. Dogs figure this out rather quickly. Have you ever noticed how, when you’ve had a long, tough day and you feel beat, that your dog can sometimes sense this and will just lie at your feet instead of pestering you like normal? This is because she has learned that your body language says you don’t want to play.
Now, if you arrive home full of life and energy, it seems your dog just can’t get enough of you and won’t calm down. Dogs key-in on the slightest things from us: everything from a raised eyebrow to a raised hand.
Dogs Tell Us When They Don’t Understand
When a dog does not understand something you are doing, there are many ways for them to show this misunderstanding. They may duck or cower, bark at you, even try to get between you and another person. These are all signs of a lack of communication and evidence that your dog is trying to figure out what is going on.
I have learned much of this from my dog, Oz. Whenever I come home in a foul mood, he will cower and walk around looking like he did something wrong. At first this bothered me,and I would look at him and tell him he was okay—it was just me in the bad mood.
It took me a while to realize that I was reinforcing this behavior by giving him attention when he acted that way.
Soon, I began to understand that when Oz was ducking and unsure, it was because he was trying to learn from me. He was watching me. If I gave him attention, he would continue to behave in that way when I came home, no matter what my mood. When I stopped giving that behavior attention, it soon went away and he greets me happily at the door every time.
Identifying Stress in Your Dog
Another important part of body language is a dog’s stress signs. Noticing these stress signs can really help when communicating with your dog. The reason I mention this is because sometimes we can confuse stress with the above signs of miscommunication. Although the signs may be similar, they are very different depending on the situations you are in at the moment. Also, rewarding (or giving attention to) stress is a very common practice as well.
As you dive even further into this training course you will read, hear, and see many examples of what I am writing about here.
Body Language with Other Dogs
Another thing I have learned is that dog is not man’s best friend; dog is dog’s best friend. The reason I know this is because dogs pick up on other dogs’ body language very quickly. Dogs have a few ways of showing their intentions very quickly to another dog.
If the dog’s body language is not consistent, then usually the other dog may get aggressive or just ignore the new dog altogether. Dogs understand each other very well. This does not mean that a dog cannot send another dog the wrong signal, it just means that dogs key-in on other dogs much more readily than with humans.
Body language would be considered the first language in the dog world. They don’t use words, phrases, or sentences as we do, yet you it’s obvious that they communicate quite clearly with each other.
There are many different signs a dog gives in many situations; fear, stress, protection, play, affection, and love. Without going into all of the signs for every situation, I can just tell you that each sign is very different in any given situation.
Improving Your Body Language
Once we learn what these signs are, we can really improve on how we are communicating with our body language as well. I go into many stressful situations with owners and dogs and the stress is diffused quickly because the dog does not view me as a threat.
Owners are sometimes even shocked at how differently their dog will act when I come into their home than when a friend or neighbor visits. This goes both ways. Sometimes I do pose a threat to a dog, because that dog has been the dominant of the household, and when I come in I have a very dominating presence to a dog. Read this article about how dogs learn through the hierarchy, to understand why a dog would be threatened by me.
There are many great books and videos out that show these signs and give great examples. I have learned more by watching this first-hand in dog parks, at people’s homes, and in many social situations. The more you understand and practice good body language, the better you will be at communicating to your dog.