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Decoding your pet's body language

Decoding your pet's body languageFacial expressions. Posture. Gestures. Eye movement. Touch. The use of space around us. From researchers to career coaches, magazine articles to blog posts, modern science tells us that it is often what we don’t say that can leave the greatest impression, but have you ever wondered what you can understand from your own pet’s body language? Body language is the process of non-verbal communication through conscious or unconscious movements, gestures or mannerisms. While scientists have been observing human body language in one form or another for centuries, it is only recently  that researchers have started to investigate what body language means for pets and their behaviour. 

Prof. Lee Niel specializes in animal behaviour and welfare at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), University of Guelph. She is studying what dog owners understand about their pet’s behaviour through their body language, and more specifically, what we can learn and how we can use dog body language as an indicator of fear and aggression. 

“Dogs, like people, can react very differently to certain situations,” Niel says. “We see this all the time in everyday life: some dogs may be relaxed and comfortable when company is over or when they interact with other dogs and people they don’t know in off-leash parks, others may not. Dogs that experience fear in response to regular activities are more likely to have reduced welfare, so it is important that owners are able to recognize behavioural signs of fear and help their dog avoid situations that are problematic.”

Not only is fear a threat to your dog’s mental well-being, but it can also put them at a higher risk of developing serious behaviour problems such as aggression. Niel says aggression often has a significant impact on the human-animal bond, and can alter the way we interact and connect with our pets. It can also pose a significant safety concern and sometimes lead to surrender, or even euthanasia, of the affected animal.

“Understanding animal body language allows pet owners to recognize their pet’s patterns and needs,” Niel says. “It allows owners to provide an environment that reduces stress and fear for pets and gives them the opportunity to avoid potentially dangerous situations for pets and people.” 

While understanding pet body language is important, recent research results from Niel’s group revealed that there are certain fear behaviours that are challenging for many owners to recognize, while others are more reliable, such as body posture, ear and tail position, and relatively subtle behaviours such as lip licking and avoiding eye contact.  The research also found that most dog owners were good at rating dog fear and aggression, but surprisingly, a relatively high percentage were unable to correctly identify examples of moderate to severe fear and aggression. Niel says further research is needed to understand whether these owners are truly unable to identify dog fear and aggression, or if there is also some reluctance to negatively label dogs. This may be particularly true for dogs that show threatening behaviour without actually trying to bite – Niel’s study also showed that more than 25 per cent of participants were unable to correctly identify dogs showing threatening behaviour. But Niel says fear in pets can unexpectedly turn into aggression, and that reading these signals is key to adapting to your pet’s needs.   

“If you think about human behaviour we know that people are different when it comes to the activities they like to be involved in, and their thresholds are different for certain stimuli like noise and activity. Some people may enjoy attending a noisy music festival, or interacting with active children, some may not, and dogs are the same” Niel explains. “In some cases a dog might be exposed to a number of triggers that the owner is unaware of, which results in them feeling threatened and responding aggressively to protect themselves.  However, if the owner was able to recognize the subtle, early signs of fear the situation might have been avoided before it escalated. “

The ultimate goal of Niel’s work is to prevent and reduce fear in dogs by teaching pet owners to understand their animal’s needs and recognize when their pet is showing signs of fear and potential aggression. For example, if a child approaches a dog and a pet owner can identify early physical signs of fear, they can make adjustments, change the environment and make it a safer, more positive experience for their dog, the child and themselves.   

“Pet owners can use body language signals to avoid problems early. The ability to recognize how your dog reacts in certain situations is key.” 

Originally printed in Best Friends Magazine, Spring/Summer 2018.