Reading Your

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Our dogs speak eloquently to us in a language of their own, a nonverbal language of body and face movements. You need to listen with your eyes to "read" your dog's body language. Understanding this language is essential for two-way communication, and therefore necessary to train your dog and to have a good relationship.

A good way to learn about dog body language is to observe dogs communicating with each other. Give your dog the opportunity to socialize with other dogs, and watch how they interact. How does he greet familiar dogs versus strange dogs? How does he get another dog to play? What games do they play? How do they behave when they get angry at each other?

Another way to learn about your dog's language is to read books on dog and wolf behavior. Since dog and wolf behaviors are similar, the interactions of wolves in the wild give scientists a chance to observe communication in a pure form, as it exists without human interference. For example, a dog behavior that many people find annoying is licking people's faces, especially their mouths. The origin of the behavior is rarely seen in dogs, but observations of wolves have shown that wolf puppies are fed by food that is regurgitated by older wolves. This regurgitation is triggered by the wolf pups jumping up and licking at the older wolves' mouths. In this way, wolves could bring home meat from their kills and have it already predigested for their puppies—wolf baby food. This is rarely observed in dogs because puppies are removed from their mothers shortly after weaning. The licking at mouths persists as a greeting behavior in wolves after they have matured. This is why your dog greets you by jumping up and trying to lick your mouth.

Mistakes in interpreting dog body language result in training errors. A common scenario of miscommunication takes place when an owner returns home to find that his dog has destroyed something in his absence. The owner acts angry, and his dog reacts by slinking with his eyes averted or by rolling over onto his side. The owner interprets this behavior to mean that the dog knows what he did wrong and feels guilty. The owner then proceeds to punish him. However, dogs instinctively react to threatening or angry behavior by acting submissively. For instance, my Greyhound acts submissively anytime I am mad, even if it is because I burned dinner or the car broke down. She certainly doesn't know why I am angry. In the case above, the dog is being punished without having the vaguest idea why. He may have committed the destruction minutes after his owner left, and is being punished eight hours later. This punishment will only serve to make him more anxious about his owner coming and going and more likely to react to this stress by destroying something the next time his owner leaves.

As a dog obedience instructor, I often find myself telling a student, "Your dog doesn't understand what you want." This is said to caution a student who is preparing to punish a dog for disobeying a command that the dog doesn't understand in the first place. Typically the disobedience is blamed on the dog's stubbornness. This is another example of how a training error can be committed by misreading a dog. Being able to tell the difference between when your dog is confused and when he is choosing not to obey is critical to good training. A dog's trust is destroyed when he doesn't know what to do to avoid punishment.

Reading your dog is an art. Your dog is already very good at reading you and understanding your emotions by observing your body language. He does it so well that at times he almost seems to read your mind. You owe it to your dog to try to become equally adept at reading him. Developing a friendship with your dog depends on it.

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