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Observation: A Powerful Tool for Relating With Your Dog

Updated on January 30, 2024
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Brian is a dog lover interested in the mental and emotional lives of dogs. He owned and trained Wally, a Coton de Tulear, for 14 years.

Windows to the Mind

Watching your dog can be funny, relaxing, interesting, and perplexing. Many things we see dogs do can be explained by what we call instinct, internal functions that get awakened as nature deems fit, like a download from the dog's genes. Other behaviors, especially those created from training or in use while the dog is exploring or problem solving, can be windows to his mind and give us some clues on how to proceed with our training.

Is something up?
Is something up?

Calming Signals

One window to the mind of your dog is calming signals. These are various small gestures, postures, and movements that can indicate stress, displeasure, or saying "please and thank you". They exist to help dogs get along and avoid conflicts from being blown up into something that could be threatening.

These signals are often thrown at you in just general day-to-day interaction with you. This doesn't mean that you are causing your dog constant stress, but can just be the dog wanting to make sure you stay calm (hence the term often given to these signals) and that interactions can stay peaceful. It can also be an "excuse me, not trying to be rude", "I didn't mean anything by it", or "I didn't mean to bother you".

Your dog may also do these signals in response to certain behaviors you do towards the dog. This often occurs because humans and canines speak a different body language. Some we also can't help, such as looming over their heads. We're taller than a dog, can't be helped, but it may trigger a calming signal because of what it appears like to him.

These signals can come during training as well. This could indicate that you're getting too excited, upset, or doing other things that makes the dog feel uneasy. A typical example is the owner that yells at the dog to come. The dog moves slowly, which the owner misunderstands. So the owner gets madder, which makes the dog use MORE signals (including moving even slower or just stopping and lying down).

The other side of this window is not stubbornness, but anxiety. Ease up if you see the dog doing things like this. And, remember, it's the dog's feelings that count. You're looking into his window, remember? See what's on the other side with objectivity and with a canine point-of-view.

Behavior + Body Language = Fuller Picture

Wally and I - an example

Often times when I'm working with Wally, I can see his tail going down. Depending on how far the tail is down, I can read that as he's just concentrating and "getting down to business" or that he is really getting confused and anxious as a result.

Things that are difficult for him, like trying to learn colors, will put that tail down after a while and it looks like he's bored or hating the training. His movements will be more controlled, even when he's getting the reward. He's trying to focus and keep his mind on what's going on.

If he sits and starts panting - then I know he's about had it. He's probably getting mentally exhausted or his morale is just dropping too far and he's asking for a break. Likewise, if his behavior offering gets slower in shaping, that's another sign that he's starting to tire out mentally.

Observing these signals helps me to keep Wally in a good frame of mind as well as show me what he's thinking and feeling. It's a way for the "student" to give the "teacher" a little feedback on the process.

Behaviors Show What He Is Thinking

Present a problem to the dog. Then stand (or sit) back. Say nothing. Do nothing. Just watch. What is the dog doing? What is he or she trying? Looking at you and then the object? Sniffing? Poking? Pawing?

The behaviors your dog displays show how he is approaching the problem and what he thinks the solution might be. Dogs have quite the creative streak in them, and you can see how they are considering combining behaviors. This can give an idea of what behaviors he's most confident in, what behaviors are successful in his mind, and so on.

It can also give ideas on how he considers using his body. Is he pawsy? Is he a sniffer? Is he uncertain and stretching his neck out? Is he looking at you for information? Has he stopping doing things entirely, but still over there and looking at you? Things like this show more about how he's thinking.

How to use this in training? A dog that's pawsy might be more capable at learning paw targeting. If he's a sniffer, nose targeting and poking is probably going to be easy as showing the dog the thing for the first time and rewarding it. If you're a shaper like me, this kind of observation can help you set up "scenarios" or "formulas" for the dog to get started or what tasks you emphasize.

Tail up and ears (well one of them) out. Wally is telling me he's eager. Mouth closed tells me he's focusing and alert.
Tail up and ears (well one of them) out. Wally is telling me he's eager. Mouth closed tells me he's focusing and alert.

Ears, Eyes, and Mouth - Some of the Largest Windows

How the dog moves his ears, eyes, and mouth can tell you a lot about what's in the dog's mind. We know a dog's ears prick up (or out in the case of Wally) when an interesting sound comes to the dog. There are other reasons, though, when a dog does this.

Ears coming out suddenly can indicate surprise. Something has happened that the dog didn't expect and suddenly the ears come out. Of course, this is to pick up any noteworthy sounds, but the overall context and behavior of the movement displays what's in his mind. Dogs also put their ears forward/out when wondering what's happening or when wanting information.

Going from panting to a closed mouth is an indication that the dog is concentrating on something. A movement from you, a sound that happened, listening to your instructions, or even your reward marker.

Speaking of panting, this is one of those signals that's on the harder side to read on its own, like tail wagging. A dog panting might just be hot, or he could be really anxious, or perhaps just very excited. Panting is a behavior that needs context at all times, including what the dog has just been doing. Panting in a nice cool room when not having done anything recently may not be because he's hot, but excited that you got up, because he thinks something good is going to happen. Things like that are the kinds of context clues to draw on.

These are also sources of calming signals. Yawning can be an attempt to displace nervous energy, just being tired, or trying to wake himself quickly (drawing more oxygen to the brain) because he wants to be ready for action. The eyes may break contact with your for a brief instant as that's a calming signal (doesn't want to stare). They may cut towards something he sees that's got him concerned or interested or some place he wants to go.

Have A Keen Eye And Focus On Your Dog

Lastly, when doing observation, truly watch the dog. Try not to be distracted or busy, but instead, keep a sharp eye out for behaviors and signals that the dog is throwing out. It is really easy to miss an ear flick, an eye blink, a nose lick. Not watching could have you miss him looking at you for information or how he combined various behaviors to solve a problem.

Observe at all times when you're interacting. If you're playing a game, watch to see if you get any signals, what body language you get, and how your dog plays and uses his body.

Feel free to keep notes on what your dog does and what triggered the reaction. Watching things of this nature can have you put together a picture of how the dog thinks and feels in various situations, environments, or specific people, animals, or objects.

I know watching these behaviors helped me understand what Wally is considering and what's going on in his mind. Having a soft dog who was at the time quite anxious and fearful, this kind of observation really helped me help him. That has carried forward to now, even though he's far improved since those early days. I hope this has helped you as well!

If your puppy or dog shows signs of potential aggression (lunging, barking, growling, snapping, biting), please consult with a dog behavior professional for direct in-person guidance. Articles, videos, and general information provided online are not meant to replace in-person training/instruction. By using this service, you are waiving any liability claims or other types of claims related to any of your dogs' behaviors against you or others.

© 2012 Brian McDowell


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