I have always enjoyed observing animal behaviour, which is probably why I was so taken with Turid Rugaas’ “Calming Signals” and Dr. Sophia Yin’s work on canine body language.
Watching for calming and stress signals is a great way to improve your training; dogs, like people, don’t learn well while stressed. Sometimes it can be pretty shocking to realise how stressed an animal is though. At first, being able to see signs of stress in dogs made ME stressed since I didn’t really know what to do about it. I felt guilty that I was making my dog unhappy but I didn’t know how to adjust my training style for him yet. I was locked up by the incomplete “Don’t comfort a stressed dog, you’ll only reward the emotion!” was something I heard a lot. Plus a lot of the training I had learned was pretty stressful for a dog to begin with.
What I’ve learned since:
-You can’t reward or punish an emotion, only behaviour. (Yes, emotion is attached to behaviour but it’s not a direct link.)
-Ignoring behaviours won’t stop the dog from feeling whatever upsetting emotion they are having, and if no alternative behaviour is taught the dog may escalate their behaviour in an attempt to soothe themselves or gain distance from the stressor
-Calming signals aren’t just a tool for dogs to communicated to you; You can use canine body language to communicate with your dog!
Ok so what can we actually do with this info?
One of my number one “punishments” in dog training is simply turning away (these are called “Negative Punishments” in psychology speak; the remove something the dog wants such as attention to reduce an undesirable behaviour). You may have noticed a dog do this at the dog park! Dog 1 approaching, being exuberant and getting right up into Dog 2’s face. Dog 2 stands stiff and looks away.
When faced with something such as demand barking or jumping up I love to use this body language. If a dog barks to get a treat, toy or cuddles, I stand up, and look away. Now, the key is that you can’t only punish the undesired behaviour; you need to also reinforce what you want the dog to do instead. So when a dog is barking to demand something I use exaggerated “I’m ignoring you” body language but I also mark and reward the behaviour I do want, which in this case is waiting quietly. At first your dog might go right back into barking, then you just wip back around and ignore again. The same procedure for dogs who jump up. This can be even easier to train since what jumping dogs really want is attention, and attention is what is taken away.
Understanding dog body language can also help with meeting nervous dogs or new dogs. First off, it’s important to know that walking straight at a dog can be threatening, as is reaching or bending over them. When meeting a nervous dog, crouching down and facing away from them is the best option. Let them sniff your behind, and if they’re seeming comfortable you can gently pet them along their side or under their chin; putting your hand over their face o pet their head can be scary! Dr Yin has some great posters on body language you can check out here.
Reading canine body language can be difficult at first, they move and change expressions in the blink of an eye. The way I see it, dogs have to put so much effort into understanding us, we may as well put a bit of effort into learning their communication styles too.