Is your body language helping or confusing your animal?

Dog and person silhouetteHumans and their pets understand one another on many basic levels. We can even extend this statement and recognize that we are capable of a certain level of interpretation of the intentions of wild species. We can identify most expressions of joy, fear or anger in others, which from an evolutionary standpoint has contributed to keeping us alive when we crossed path with other beings. If we can read their intentions, we can better chose what to do to stay safe. As pet owners, we quickly respond when our dog sits and whines in front of the door. As animal trainers we also learn to pay attention to factors that will affect our animals’ behavior. In training however, our ability to empathize and relate with others, is often overshadowed by our desire to achieve our goal. Through applied behavior analysis, we’ve become very good at using a series of tools to effectively train or influence specific behaviors. We focus on what the dog does or does not do. We pay attention to our timing and our treat delivery. With our focus mostly on behavior, we sometimes lose touch with the emotional component of the relationship. “We use technology but have lost the habit of using ourselves” says Roger Abrantes. By combining principles of ethology along with those of behaviorism, we can learn how to pay close attention to how our own body language will influence the animal’s ability to respond. Subtle shifts in our body, how fast and in what direction we move, how we lean, how tall we stand, where we look, the tone, the volume and the pitch of our voice are all factors that can either help or confuse the animal we’re working with. When every detail makes a difference, increasing awareness and control of our body can significantly improve how we communicate and how they respond.

We put on our shoes and when we look up, our dog is already at the door. We walk in direction of the kitchen and Fido leads the way to the fridge. No matter the species, once they’ve lived around us for a while, our animals become experts at reading our intentions. Whether an animal is solitary or social, the ability to predict another’s intentions is critical for social interactions and ultimately for survival. Even when it’s not a matter of life or death, if the animal can’t foresee another’s intention to move in her direction, she won’t have the chance to step out of the way and avoid a painful collision. When living in groups, they also need to coordinate their efforts in activities such as hunting or protection of the group. The capacity to predict where another animal is heading or to anticipate our actions may not seem like any special accomplishment, but they reveal how much they focus on movements and gestures to gather information and prepare for what is likely to happen next.
Research has confirmed what seems quite obvious for most of us. Dogs, even at a very early age, are capable of using information from our body movement to figure out where the food is hidden. They pay attention to where we point with our finger. They can even use more subtle cues such as a head tilt or even just an eye movement in direction of the baited container. This ability is not limited to body language alone. A recent study showed that dogs, as young as 8-14 weeks, were also capable of locating food hidden under a box by deducting the direction of the box from a person’s voice. From behind a barrier, a person would express excitement towards a baited box, placed either to his right or left side. Even though the person was sitting closer to the empty box, the puppies consistently went to the correct one (with the possibility to use all other cues being excluded of course) (Rossano & al., 2014). Not all species can understand human pointing gestures or deduct food location based on a person’s gaze (Miklósi & al., 2006). With sufficient experience of people, horses have also been found to be very sensitive to human body cues and determine if the person is attentive to them (Proops & al., 2013).

Horse and personSo what does this have to do with training? Much research is still needed to fully understand how animals can gather information from how we move, where we look and how we talk, but through our own observation, we can learn how to interact with an animal in a more effective way. Animals are very emotional and provide us with continuous feedback on how they feel about a situation. Above anything else, animals need to feel safe before they can focus on a task and learn. So if we move too fast or talk too loud for instance, the animal might be anxious, inhibit his/her movements or take off running. On the other hand, depending on the species, if we move towards them too slowly, we might look like a predator and they’ll be suspicious of our intentions and stay away from us. This is especially true for prey animals like horses. Generally, rhythmic sounds or movements tend to generate action. Think of how you might clap your hands or give a succession of rapid whistles to call your dog. On the other hand, single and long extended sounds tend to slow down movement, like the long and low ‘whoooooa’ of a rider to stop his horse or ‘staaaaay’ to get a dog to maintain a position.

There are many times when we might ask an animal to perform an action when our own body movements are sending incompatible information. Facing a horse’s hindquarters for instance, will make him move faster. Facing his head will get him to slow down. Small shifts of our body can make a big difference to the animal to the point that we can stop an animal in its tracks. The other day, my husband Jack found himself having to shift his body when asking a dog to go into a crate. He went to the crate, opened the door and gave Barnaby the signal to go in. The dog stood a few feet from the crate but just looked at him, not willing to go in. Once Jack realized that his body was facing the dog, he shifted his body to face the crate, and the dog immediately ran in without hesitation. Because this dog didn’t have much experience with going in the crate to a verbal signal, his original body position was enough to create hesitation and confusion. Many people also ask their dog to respond to a verbal signal while their hand is on the dog. They affectionately pet their dog while saying “sit” and wonder why their dog doesn’t respond. When touched, the dog is likely to be focused on the physical sensation and ignore the sounds that come out of the person’s mouth.

Roger AbrantesAs Abrantes pointed out in his latest guinea pig scent detection training camp at Wolf Park, the relationship we have with our dog can get in the way of objectivity in training. “Animals that don’t have such a close relationship with humans are far less forgiving so it is a high priority to be precise, to plan your training, to develop your observation skills and to have a plan B available”. If you talk too loud or move too fast, the guinea pig may freeze and bring the training session to an end. With only a few vegetables and ourselves to induce and reward the desired behavior, we’re forced to reflect on our own behavior and on how we affect the animal. At times the little creature will prefer social contact over food and cuddling may become a better reward than carrot. If we give the food too fast, he might get scared and take off in the other direction. If we’re too slow, we can miss the behavior we’re trying to reward. Consistency, controlled movements, modulated tone of voice and frequent breaks become the necessary elements for even the smallest of results.

A recent study confirms that in dogs, body language indicating a relaxed, interested and content state of mind during training correlated with better training results. The longer their eyes were kept wide open, their mouth was closed, their ears were erect and their tail was held high, with or without wagging, the more successful the training. The authors of this study suggest that when we’re able to read our dog’s body language we can understand our dog’s emotional response to the training session and help them learn better (Hasegawa & al. 2014).

We sometimes get so goal oriented with animals that we’ve been around for a long time, like dogs or horses, that we can be callous to their expressions of confusion or even distress. With all the different tools that we’ve developed over the years, we can easily force them to perform as desired, but no goal is worth the sacrifice of our relationship with our animal. Even when we’re careful, we’re not always conscious of our body language and can sometimes slow down our progress and generate confusion. When working with different species, especially prey animals, like horses, or even guinea pigs, we can learn a lot about how much our movements will affect their emotional state and ultimately their ability to learn. Dogs are very forgiving and have lived with us for so long that they can generally bounce back quickly. This should not keep us from paying attention to the effect we have on them. We might inadvertently interrupt their intent to move in a certain direction, give conflicting information or affect their emotional state. Animal training works better when we can bring together the right combination of good communication, good technique and good tools.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (, a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (

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Posted in Dog behavior, Dog training, Dog/human relationship, emotions, Horse, Misc, science
2 comments on “Is your body language helping or confusing your animal?
  1. Gerry says:

    Thank you for the article, which brought a few additional things to mind. A number of articles mention dogs responding to human gesturing, but don’t mention the variability. In an open test of over 800 shelter dogs, less than one-fifth had strong orienting responses to human gestures. With history lacking, it’s possible that many of them acquired this response only after living with people. Most dogs I’ve worked with did so fairly quickly and much faster than other animals, which still supports the domestication hypothesis.

    While most people can readily learn the basics, many have trouble controlling and interpreting their body language. In many years of working with shelter and play group volunteers, very few of them were able to acquire very good skills in communicating with a variety of dogs. For people with their own dogs, I often see both sides adjusting their body language and responses to the point where some of those people become confused when strange dogs don’t respond the same way.

    While many books speak of your body language in approaching a dog, they often omit your body language in response to the dog’s own. The best people running play groups are the one’s who have mastered that area.

    In rapid rehabilitation our first focus is on attending and orienting responses, and relaxation. This supports the results found in Hasegawa you noted, as it reduces the time needed for further conditioning and later obedience training.

  2. Cathy says:

    For a novice person wanting to learn more on the body language relationship between dog and human what advice would you give regarding books and dvd etc?

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  2. […] Is your body language helping or confusing your animal? “By combining principles of ethology along with those of behaviorism, we can learn how to pay close attention to how our own body language will influence the animal’s ability to respond.” This post brings forth the value of being mindful of our movements around animals as we can affect their emotions and intentions. […]

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