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Bodies Talk: Understanding Your Dog's Signals and Reactivity

Our furry companions, our loyal friends, our dogs—what would we do without them? They provide us with unconditional love and companionship, but sometimes, they communicate with us in a language we struggle to understand. Dogs use their bodies to talk to us, and missing their signals can be our first mistake. In this blog post, we're going to explore how your dog's body language can reveal a lot about their emotions and potential reactions. By learning to interpret these signals, you can set your dog up for success and strengthen your bond.

The Dog's Side:

Dogs are masters of non-verbal communication, and they express their feelings through various physical cues. One of the most telling indicators is their tail. Different breeds have distinct tail positions when calm. For instance, Huskies hold their tails high in a loop, while Bernese Mountain Dogs keep their tails low and loose. Understanding your dog's baseline tail position can help you notice when something is amiss.


A dog's tail can be a clear indicator of its emotional state. If you see a lowered or tucked tail, it's a sign that your dog is frightened, stressed, or anxious. On the other hand, a stiff, raised tail with slow wagging motions might signify heightened arousal, possibly leading to an escalating situation.


A dog's stance also reveals a lot about its confidence level. If your dog leans forward with most of its weight, it's likely feeling confident in the current situation. However, a dog that shifts its weight backward may be nervous and just trying to get away from the source of discomfort.


The position of a dog's ears can be a reliable indicator of alertness. Forward-reaching ears suggest attentiveness, while "seal ears" pulled backward can signal fear.


Although often overlooked in reactive situations, a dog's eyes can be quite informative. "Whale Eyes," where a dog looks at you out of the corner of its eye with a large white crescent, indicates discomfort. Understanding where your dog is looking can help you anticipate their reactions and redirect their attention.


Yawning, licking, and panting are stress signals you should not ignore. If your dog suddenly closes its mouth while exhibiting signs of stress, it may be a clear warning. Showing teeth is a definite sign of aggression.


Contrary to popular belief, raised hackles don't necessarily indicate aggression. They are more akin to goosebumps and suggest heightened arousal rather than aggression.

Other Stress Signals:

Dogs use a variety of other signals to express their discomfort, including paw placement, freezing, growling, air snapping, lunging, turning their head away, yawning when not tired, lip licking, scratching, biting, or body shaking.

The Science:

Understanding your dog's signals is the first step in addressing reactivity. Reactivity in dogs often stems from fear or over-arousal, leading to aggressive behaviors. Just as in human communication, when dogs feel unheard, their behaviors escalate.

To develop a training plan for your dog, you need to grasp two key concepts: triggers and reactivity thresholds. Identifying what triggers your dog, such as other dogs, cars, people, or rabbits, is essential. Reactivity thresholds are the stages leading up to a reaction, and recognizing these early signs can help you work proactively rather than reactively.

Trigger Stacking:

Just as humans can have bad days due to the accumulation of negative experiences, dogs can experience trigger stacking. Recognizing the early signs of your dog's discomfort is crucial to prevent reactions from escalating.

Bodies Talk 2: The Primate Side:

While much is made of dog psychology, it's important to remember that humans and dogs communicate differently. Humans are primates, and dogs are canines. Our natural responses to situations often conflict with canine communication. Understanding these differences is essential for effective interaction with our dogs.


Our natural primate behaviors, such as eye contact, touching, vocalizations, and smiling, can be misinterpreted by dogs. It's crucial to approach dogs correctly and be aware of our own calming signals, which may inadvertently escalate a dog's reaction. Try humming to avoid sending out "danger" signals when you're nervous around a dog.

Understanding Positive Reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement, often misunderstood, involves adding something the dog finds rewarding. It's not limited to treats; it includes attention. Correcting behaviors through punishment can suppress the behavior temporarily, but it doesn't address the root issue and can lead to heightened reactions. Understanding the concept of positive reinforcement is crucial in developing an effective training plan.

Hiring a Trainer:

Working with a professional dog trainer can be invaluable, but it's essential to choose a trainer who uses force-free methods, stays current with the latest research, and can explain their training plan.

Starting a Training Plan:

Management is a key part of your dog's training plan. Using tools like muzzles, leashes, baby gates, and window film can help create a safe and controlled environment. The goal is to manage the situation and prevent triggers from overwhelming your dog.

Understanding your dog's body language and reactions is a vital step in building a strong bond and addressing behavioral issues. By recognizing early signs of discomfort and employing positive reinforcement-based training, you can help your furry friend become a well-adjusted, happy, and confident companion. Remember that patience and empathy go a long way in helping your dog thrive in various situations.

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