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Reading & Understanding K9 Behavior Language

R.S. Eden

The Secret of Communicating With Your Dog

Your job as a trainer is to properly read and evaluate your dogs behavior language. This phenomenon of canine communication enables you to use your dogs ability to sense things, read very subtle clues from the dogs behavior, and pick up things which are often overlooked. In police work, a K9 Officer might be very cognizant of different ear directions in his dog. For example, this subtle clue can warn an alert officer of two different suspects, each who is heard by the dog. The dog can only work on one suspect, but if read properly before the dog acts, can often warn of hidden dangers.

Whether you are a law enforcement officer or someone train- ing your dog as a jogging companion for personal protection, or simply training a home pet, this canine behavior can make the difference between success and failure during your training. To fully understand your dog and his actions enables you to communi- cate with each other as friends and partners rather than just a handler with a trained animal.

There are various aspects to language behavior which occur separately, or together in a combination. These components will tell the handler everything he requires to ascertain the animals demeanor, and what it means in a given situation. This is par- ticularly important during training. If you misread your dogs physical signs you may unknowingly correct him or guide him at the wrong times. For example, if you attempt to teach the dog to track before you have started out with obedience training and taken the time to complete it, you may very well fail as the dog does not yet understand the basic movements which are required to control him during tracking phases.

By starting with basics and spending the time to polish the dog on them you form a bond. The dog learns to understand your particular style of command and movement, and at the same time you learn to read your dogs reactions. After you have formed this bond the animal will have a better understanding of what you require of him and he will pay particular attention to you, and try harder to please you.

This attentiveness comes naturally during the first phases of training. Therefore, although it can be done, do not attempt to combine different phases of training until you have mastered your basics and both of you are fluent in your abilities. This will very likely prevent the task of looking for a more “suitable animal” when your animal was more than adequate. Without realiz- ing it you failed to instill the attentiveness and perserverence in him the basics are designed to do. Therefore go step by step and learn to read your partner very carefully. Learn the various language components.

The first of these components is the dogs eyesight. It is a common belief that the dog has poor and limited vision. On the contrary, although they may see differently than you or I, tests have shown that dogs can in fact focus very clearly on objects in excess of over one hundred meters. They can in fact see as clearly as we do, although it is uncertain as to whether they can distinguish colors or whether they see the world as shades of black and white. The animals keeness of sight can be sharpened by simple games such as throwing a ball. The dog can see and identify articles or suspects which move, even at considerable distances and in fact it is believed that canine night vision far exceeds that of human beings. This ability to see slight move- ment is the concept of sight the dog utilizes most.

The second component is the animals keen sense of smell. To fully understand this seemingly phenomenal ability we should first understand how the animals olfactory system is built.

By looking at the dogs nose, it would appear that it is built with two long tubes for nostrils. Each nostril is in fact full of scroll like passages which are lined on both sides by millions of receptor cells. These scroll type receptors are called the turbinate bones and are built into the upper part of the nasal area. The air and its components which is inhaled by the dog moves into the upper part of the nasal area through the turbinate bones. This allows the dog to distinguish specific scents. The size of the olfactory system on a human being is approximately one inch in area as compared to that of a dog which can be close to one yard in area. The dog also has a powerful ability to store and recall scents from memory and will be dis- cussed in more depth as we progress.

The sense of hearing is the next aspect of behavior language we must be aware of. Sit down and watch your dog for awhile. Make a habit of it. You will note that sometimes he carries both ears very erect and forward. Sometimes one ear forward and one back, sometimes both will be back etc., according to what is happening around him. This in itself can reveal many things to you as the trainer.

The dog can utilize his ears like a directional antennae system. He focuses towards the sound with each ear and has the ability to sense, localize, and discriminate sound with extreme accuracy. His use of the ears in the same direction shows that he has pinpointed the sound he is after and is paying close attention to that sound. For a dog who has been trained for protection or to seek out criminals both ears forward is a defi- nite signal that indicates to you that someone or something is out in that direction. Similarly, while the dog may be paying close watch to an apprehended suspect, and his one ear keeps moving in another direction, beware, there may be a second sus- pect in close proximity to you.

The hearing capabilities of a dog are much greater than the capacity of human hearing. By using his senses and understanding what his ear position can reveal information that may be perti- nent to your training situation.

The next component of communication is the dogs use of barks, whines, yelps and growls. The position of his jowls, and stances which he assumes when voicing all combine to indicate some form of instinctive message. A steady rhythmic bark may be considered a warning to danger. A bark which is two or three sounds and then quiet may be the dog attempting to communicate with someone and then stopping to listen. Deep throated growls show anger or warning and sometimes fear. High pitched yelping usually shows excitement, playfulness or anxiousness. Crying or whining may show injury or pain, concern, loneliness or even fear.

Physical posture also plays an important role in reading the animal. A submissive animal will cower, ears back , tail between its legs. A dominant dog will hold his tail high above his back, carry his ears forward and erect. His hackles may go up and the forehead may furrow when he is being dominant. The handler can read the degree of aggression on his partner when he is being dominant by watching how far the lips are retracted from the gums, and how intense the dog appears from his forward ears, hackles, and degree and type of bark.

The animals tail, when over his back, shows complete domina- tion. When it is held half way out from the body this is a ready or danger signal. A tail which is held down is showing a non aggressive or relaxed state, whereas the tail which is held down between the legs expresses fear.

All of these components may appear at some time in different combinations. For example a very dangerous and unpredictable dog is the fear biter. He shows aggression, hackles up, feet firmly placed, steady snarl or bark, and the tail out from the body. The difference which shows him as a fear biter is that his ears are held back against his neck. They are not forward as they would be in a confident protection dog who shows the same basic physical signs otherwise, during the threat or attack stage.

Take the time to sit back and watch your dog and to learn his ways of reacting to different situations. Study him careful- ly and observe his body language. That body language is going to be how he communicates to you. He reacts instinctively and does not intentionally communicate with you all the time. Therefore it is up to you to learn his little idiocyncrocies and to pay close attention to what your partner is saying with his body actions. It will not be long before it will seem that his body language is telling you things that you were previously unaware of.

One last word on communication between you and your partner. You will find that your dog will start to cue to certain actions you take, automatically. For example every time you pick up the car keys, he gets excited because you’re going for a drive, or he gets excited as you are preparing to go for a jog or getting your uniform on for work. Our dogs learn to read our body language and actions just as we learn to read theirs. This should be remembered as you start training. Each time you do an excercise it should be done exactly the same way. For example, everytime you command “HEEL” always start on your left foot. Everytime you command “STAY” start on your right foot. It won’t be long before your partner will clue in automatically without being given a verbal command. Remember, whether you realize it or not, commu- nication is going both ways.


Telegraphing occurs when you as the trainer indicate by some subtle movement that something is about to occur. You must learn to catch yourself or it will set back your training drastically, and yet by all appearances it is your dog that is failing. In fact you are probably enforcing the problem and making it worse by unwittingly telegraphing things to your dog. The easiest way to explain is to give an example of a dog which I trained. During its young life this dog had a bad experience with a car and his fear of traffic was awesome. I would take him onto a local city traffic island and heel up and down as traffic passed by. Every time a vehicle would approach from behind, the dog would break heel and force his way to the center of the island, nearly always forcing me over with him. I would vigorously correct him with the lead but I never seemed to break him of his fear until I realized what I was doing. Everytime I heard a vehicle approaching from behind I would carefully brace up on the lead to prepare for my partner to bolt. All I was doing was telegraphing to him, at the same time he was hearing the offend- ing vehicle approach, that I too was tensing up. He could not have any way of knowing that I was tensing up because of his anticipated reaction, and not because I too was afraid. Once I learned to cease telegraphing to my dog and enforcing his fears, I was able to take him into traffic, and with patient perserver- ence and controlled corrections I was able to succesfully build his confidence in high traffic areas.

Keep this in mind in all aspects of your training. Whether you know it or not your dog is always aware of your slightest changes from the norm. Whether it is something as subtle as a change in your pace of breathing, your body tension, or the way you hold the leash, he is aware of it, and it will affect the way he acts or reacts, to a given situation.

Note: More advanced information on this subject during sessions instructed at the International Police K9 Conferences held annually in various locations throughout North America.

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