Dogs have long been dubbed man’s best friend. Our history with them dates thousands of years back, and their tendency to bond so strongly to people has led to a truly unique inter-species connection. Because of this, it’s often said that dogs ‘understand us’ and that we ‘understand them’ in turn.
I think it would be fair to assume that if you asked a dog owner “can you tell what your dog is feeling”, they are likely to respond with “of course!” Even though dogs can’t explicitly tell us what emotions they are experiencing, we make assumptions based on their body language.
A Window into Their World
While our canine friends may not speak our mother tongue, this certainly doesn’t mean they are devoid of language and communication. Rather than using verbal language, dogs, like other animals, use body language to communicate. Sets of gestures, movements, and sounds send signals to other individuals allowing for nonverbal communication.
The intricacies and nuances of body language study are plentiful, but for most people, deductions about how a dog may be feeling are made on simple observations. Dogs have become incredibly adept at communicating with humans via body language. Most people have an idea of what a ‘happy’ dog looks like - as opposed to a ‘scared’ dog. These assessments can often be made by looking at the dog’s posture, facial expression, vocalizations, that in some ways, resemble our own when we feel such emotions.
A dog’s body language effectively serves as our viewing window into their world of emotion. They can’t tell us how they feel, so our best bet is often to infer using our understanding of how they communicate.
Uses in Separation Anxiety Training
Where does all this come into play during separation anxiety training? Being able to observe and understand body language is critical to keeping your dog under threshold, assessing how well they are coping with absences, and more.
The process of desensitizing a dog to being left alone is one that involves careful observation, as the dog should ideally be left for an amount of time that they do not perceive as scary… then remain comfortable as this amount of time increases. For some dogs, the line between comfort and panic is very fine. Understanding dog body language helps you observe signs of discomfort that may otherwise be missed, allowing you to better assess how the dog may be feeling during training.
Coupled with the ability to watch your dog live during an absence (via a camera, smart device, etc), being able to observe and take notes of body language is a powerful tool that can greatly assist you as you assess your dog’s comfort during alone time.
What to Look For
Body language can include a wide variety of postures, signals, and expressions, and more. Tying this to separation anxiety creates an emphasis on watching for signs of stress as we work to keep the dog comfortable. Much of body language is subtle – sometimes even unconscious. Signs of fear and discomfort in particular can be easy to miss and the dangers of missing them are much more significant.
While some signs of discomfort such as trembling, panting, drooling, and vocalizing may be more obvious to some, more subtle signs of discomfort can include signals such as…
-Whale eyes (when the whites of the eyes are made visible)
-Suddenly grooming, scratching, or sniffing (often called ‘displacement’ behaviors)
Additionally, these subtle signs of stress often precede more exaggerated displays of anxiety such as vocalizing. This allows perceptive dog owners to observe their dog growing less comfortable during separation anxiety training – helping them understand where their dog’s stress threshold is and how to ensure their dog does not reach and go beyond their threshold at any point during training.
The Key to a Better Understanding
Good communication is a two-way street. Both individuals provide input and contribute to the conversation. Feelings can be discussed and addressed openly without speculation. When we’re working with our dogs, non-verbal communication becomes the only option.
I believe that because of this, it’s only fair that we do our very best to learn how our dogs communicate with us in order to ensure we are allowing them to have their ‘say’ in the conversation. Observing and taking notes of their signs of discomfort give us better insight about their feelings and how we can take them into account both during training, and on a regular basis.
Non-verbal communication is a constant – always flowing, sending signals, and conversing even when we don’t realize it. The more you learn about body language, the more conscious you become of how your dog is acting and the easier it is to train and interact with their emotions in mind. So while body language may seem complex in some ways, it is well worth the effort to learn about!
Not sure what to look for? Let's get you on the books for an Initial Threshold Check in! We will dive deeper into your case specifics, do a live session so that I can start to take note of your dog's specific body language shifts and what their climb up the stress escalation ladder looks like, and provide immediate training and management tips to get started!