The ability to read dog body language is so important to professional dog trainers. We need to determine whether dogs are upset or not upset to inform our diagnostics and training methods choice (operant conditioning or classical conditioning based). Dogs that are upset need to have the underlying reason for that emotional state addressed prior to focusing on obedience behaviors and results – much like a fearful child would need to be comforted before we would worry about teaching a subject like mathematics.
Upset dogs are fearful, uncomfortable, distressed, worried, or anxious. Not upset dogs are none of those things.
Here are examples of my dogs showing both their non-upset body language and their upset body language:
Notice individual body parts. When Hayley is nervous (picture on right) she has her ears pressed back and against her head, she is displaying “Whale eye” by showing extra white from her eyes widened in fright. Additionally, she is averting eye contact with the person taking the picture. She is stress panting rather heavily. Also something that cannot be observed in the photo is her body trembling in fear.
Contrast that body language with her happy photo (on the left). She is riding in the backseat of the car on the way to the park. Her ears are slightly back because she is listening to sounds outside the window, but not pressed firmly against her head. She has a nice, open mouth grin. Her eyes are opened a normal amount and no extra whites are showing. Her body posture is relaxed as she is sitting calmly.
Here she is again. See if you can identify individual body parts from the photos that give you an idea how she is feeling.
Mocha (on the right) is upset that a person is encroaching on her space. She is displaying resource guarding/ possessive behavior in regards to guarding her bed. Her ears are back, and her lips are pulled back revealing teeth in a defensive threat posture including showing the canines. Her eyes are hard as she is glaring obliquely at the person in her space.
Contrast that with her happy smile (picture on the left). She has nice, soft eyes, an open mouth with lips pulled back in a grin (not to reveal teeth as a threat). Her ears are at regular, normal resting position for her.
When we have an upset dog to train, we need to address the underlying reasons for our dogs to be upset. In both Hayley’s and Mocha’s cases above where they are upset, they would be candidates for a behavior modification protocol involving desensitization and counterconditioning – working gradually up to them forming positive associations with the things bothering or scaring them. We wouldn’t start by trying to teach obedience behaviors with operant conditioning (rewards for desirable behavior) in those situations. We would solve their reasons for feeling upset and focus on their well-being and helping them become happy and content.
Learn more about dog behavior and body language at: