Through my various studies and experiences learning about and working with dogs, I’ve come to believe that one of the most important things we can do to improve the human-dog relationship is to improve our understanding of canine body language. Inadequate understanding of dog behavior and body language not only damages the human-dog bond, but it also puts people at risk for bites. Furthermore, the more we learn about dog behavior and body language, the more we learn about the safest, most humane and effective ways to train them.
Interestingly, Salgirli Demirbas et al. (2016) found that adult dog guardians were more likely to inaccurately classify dog emotional states than those who did not own dogs. In the study, adult participants were shown videos of interactions between children and dogs and were asked to interpret the dog's behavior. An expert panel determined that the dogs in the videos were fearful/anxious. However, 53.8% of dog guardians described the dogs as relaxed, and 61.9% of non-dog guardians described the dogs as being in a state of emotional conflict.
“…[I]t was shown that having experience with a dog without any theoretical knowledge of dog behavior may be a detriment to interpreting canine language” (Salgirli Demirbas et al., 2016, p. 581).
I’ve interacted with many people who have cited that their knowledge of dog behavior comes from “growing up with dogs.” Until I more formally began learning about dog behavior and body language in both professional and educational formats, I had no idea how much I hadn’t learned through my observations growing up with dogs. Salgirli Demirbas et al. (2016) also cited other various studies, albeit somewhat conflicting, that demonstrate the difficulty people have interpreting dog behavior (p. 583).
From personal experience working in the companion animal industry, this lack of understanding dog body language not only exists in the general public, including dog guardians, but also in animal professionals. Roshier and McBride (2013) determined that many veterinarians lack confidence in simply assessing behavior and believe that their skills in addressing behavior concerns does not mean client expectations. Thus, education on dog behavior and body language is not only necessary for dog guardians but also for animal care professionals.
One great visual tool that can be used to explain dog body language and behavior in a way that prevents discomfort from escalating to aggression is the “Canine Ladder of Aggression” (Salgirli Demirbas et al., 2016, p. 583 & 590). In preventing bites and also building more trusting relationships with our dogs, it is critical to know how to look for the various signals that indicate a dog is stressed and to make whatever necessary changes to alleviate the dog’s stress before it escalates.
When discussing dog behavior and body language, common terms that frequently get mentioned are “dominance” and “submission.” Unfortunately, these words are often misunderstood by the general public, and our dogs are suffering for it. The way scientists who study animal behavior use these words is profoundly different. Bradshaw, Blackwell and Casey (2014) discuss how dominance is not a personality trait nor are our companion dogs on a constant quest to achieve status (p. 102-103).
It should also be noted that much of the research on dominance in dogs has been done on free-ranging dogs or dogs in a kennel or daycare environment. I was not able to locate any studies that tested dominance in human-dog or even dog-dog interactions in the home. In my personal experience, two of my Heal to Howl clients are dogs that I knew when I worked at a local kennel/doggie daycare. Their behavior in their home is vastly different than what it was in daycare. Dogs studied in a home environment will give us the most accurate information as to how to interact with and understand our dogs in our homes, because fundamentally, even doggie daycare is an artificially constructed environment for the companion dog.
However, Westgarth (2016) hypothesizes that “nobody will ever agree about the issue of dominance in dogs” (p. 99). This is largely because “even as experienced scientists, it is possible to be looking at the same data from different perspectives and seeing a different “truth’” (p. 100). Regardless, even scientists who seem to disagree on exactly what dominance looks like in dogs recognize that using the harsh and aversive training methods associated with being the “pack leader” (i.e. alpha rolls) have negative welfare implications.
Dominance is not a “useful construct” for dog guardians and trainers as it clouds our ability to fully determine our dogs’ emotional states, visible through body language and behavior, during human-dog interactions and dog-dog interactions. Dr. Zazie Todd (2017) very recently wrote an insightful blog post, “Dominance Deprives Dogs of Positive Experiences,” that complements this post nicely. Todd discusses that using dominance in training has serious risks and consequences, and that reward-based training isn’t only safer but also more fun and effective as it motivates dogs to want to learn.
As discussed in Salgirli Demirbas et al. (2016), education is the key to improving the knowledge of the general public on dog body language and behavior and to preventing dog bites. Additionally, there are much more helpful and beneficial ways to view our relationships with our dogs that isn’t through the lens of dominance and submission. Taking the time to tune in to our dogs and to train them using reward-based methods are some of the most important steps in deepening our bonds with our dogs.
Bradshaw, J. W. S., Blackwell, E.-J., & Casey, R. A. (2016). Dominance in domestic dogs—A response to Schilder et al. (2014). Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 102–108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.11.008
Demirbas, Y. S., Ozturk, H., Emre, B., Kockaya, M., Ozvardar, T., & Scott, A. (2016). Adults’ Ability to Interpret Canine Body Language during a Dog–Child Interaction. Anthrozoös, 29(4), 581–596. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2016.1228750
dvm360. (n.d.). Handout: Canine ladder of aggression. Retrieved February 16, 2017, from http://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/handout-canine-ladder-aggression
Roshier, A. L., & McBride, E. A. (2013). Veterinarians’ perceptions of behaviour support in small-animal practice. The Veterinary Record, 172(10), 267. https://doi.org/10.1136/vr.101124
Todd, Z. (2017, February 15). “Dominance” Training Deprives Dogs of Positive Experiences. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from http://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2017/02/dominance-training-deprives-dogs-of.html
Westgarth, C. (2016). Why nobody will ever agree about dominance in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 99–101. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.02.004
Owner of Coexistence Consulting. Master of Science in Anthrozoology. Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Certified Fear Free Animal Trainer. Certificate in Applied Animal Behavior. Student in The Academy for Dog Trainers.