Non-verbal Communication with Fido


Since becoming a dog owner almost two years ago, I’ve learned a lot about building a stronger relationship with my dog Jack. I adopted him from the Escondido Humane Society when he was three months old and since he has matured into an adult, he has become so fun to interact with! He smiles at me all the time and I have come to realize he’s vibing off my emotions, and it is truly one of the best things I have ever experienced. I have learned that my one word facial expressions and physical gestures, communicate and give him cues to my emotions and intentions – And it goes both ways. We can learn from cues and emotions our dogs express to better understand what they are trying to express to us and how we can respond to them.

Here are a list of non -verbal cues on behalf of both parent and pet. I hope these cues can assist you and Fido to build a stronger relationship.

On behalf of Parent:

Facial Cues: Fido can interpret a lot about your agenda based on your facial expressions. For example: my dog hates it when I am posted up at the computer. That is when he knows he won’t be going anywhere for the time being except patiently waiting at the foot of my bed resting until I’m done with work. For a long time I tried to not even make direct eye contact with him while I worked, but later learned there were better ways to cue up my thoughts in response to his curiosity.

I use TWO different facial expression to express two different ideas to him so that he can respect my time while I am busy working.  #1 “You might as well get comfortable we’re not going anywhere any time soon” and  #2 “Give me a few moments, we will leave soon”. For scenario 1,  I use raised eye-brows with a closed mouth to communicate “Get comfortable Jack we’re not going anywhere any time soon”. When I am nearly done, for scenario 2, I use a smile ( not the biggest one ) but a mid level smile to give him the heads up, give me a few moments Jack, we will leave soon. Learn to make a habit of expressing specific facial gestures using your eyebrows ( lifted or frown ) your mouth/lips ( smile with teeth or without or open-mouthing the word “NO” with a circular open mouth ). I encourage you to make a habit of associating specific gestures/ cues on responses and or ideas you want to communicate to your pet.

Body Language: Just like people read our body language, so do animals. For example: Sometimes my dog does things around the house that upset me such as drinking out of the toilet or jumping on the bed. While my words and tone of voice, along with the way I say “No or Bad dog” resonate with him, so does my body gestures. I will often try to make a habit of crossing my arms when I am upset with him to find another outlet of communication to better emphasize the same idea. For example: When my dog is good, along with saying “Good boy” in a very high pitch happy warm tone I also smile big and open my arms real wide. Jack loves this and he responds with a smile and wagging body himself. The way we use of bodies to speak is very different than the way our dogs would use their bodies.


On behalf of Pet:

Facial Cues: You can tell a lot about a dogs’s feeling or mood by looking at his face. Dogs smile with their whole face, mouth open eyes a bit squinted- just like people. A fake smile on a person is rarely paired with squinting eyes. A tight lipped face ( imagine the dog saying pooh ) usually means Fido has something to say. It is usually not a sign to be wary of unless you have sleeping babies around. A tightly closed mouth with the corners of the mouth pressed forwards is a sign of stress. Generally, what you want to see  on a dog when you are approaching, or on your dog as another is approaching, is a loose pulled back face and head held high. Head down could mean play or fear, but the face will give you the clues you need to determine whether to allow physical contact or not.

Wagging Tail: It is a popular misconception that a wagging tail always means that the dog is happy. A wagging tail can be universally interpreted as excited, but excited is not always happy either. Be conscious, because though rare, a dog could be wagging their tail as they approach and can still lunge, snap or bite.

Full Body Wag: What you want to look for in a happy dog’s non-verbal communication is a loose and wiggly body. When the whole body seems to be wagging, the dog is happy. You will never see a dog whose whole body is wiggling and bending itself back and forth from head to tail lunge at anyone except to jump and lick. A full body wagger is a very happy pup!

Helicopter Tail: The other no fail happy cue is when a dog’s tail does not merely wag back and forth from side to side, but wags itself around and around in a circular motion as if the dog us propelling himself toward the object of his or her excitement. Not all dogs demonstrate it for everyone all the time. Some will often express this tail for specific dogs that excite them as well as for particular humans like their owners.

Rigid Postures: When you see a dog standing tall and rigid, with no motion, he or she is uncomfortable. When the tail is up and the body is rigid, the dog is alert and observing his environment, and is likely to jump or lunge. If the tail is down and between the legs, the dog is frightened. If the front of the dog’s body is closer to the ground than the back, and the rear is sort of up in the air, that is typically known as a play bow. Play bow’s are usually a good sign. However, if something that looks like a play bow is accompanied by a tail between the legs, it could be read as a defensive posture. Your reaction to a defensive posture should be to first make sure there is room to escape if need be. In that case, divert your dogs attention to something more positive in a direction away from what or whom is making him feel defensive.

Hackles Up: This is the canine equivalent to goose bumps. The hackles are the hairs on the dogs back that stand up when they feel threatened or anxious. A dog with his hackles up needs to be avoided if he is not yours, and needs his attention diverted if he is yours. The hackles usually appear as a pooled cluster of fur on the front haunches of the dog, just where the shoulders and neck meet the back.

You don’t have to be Dr. Doolittle, but keep in mind that dogs and all animals live in the moment by communicating through non verbal cues. Learning the very basics of this language will help us become good dog listeners and better communicators too. If we open ourselves to learning the language they use to communicate, we can strengthen our understanding of our companions and work to reduce the stress and anxiety in both their lives and ours.

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