The Subtitles: Using Body Language to Help Your Dog Learn

The Subtitles: Using Body Language to Help Your Dog Learn

There comes a time in a trainer’s career that he or she begins to understand that we spend a lot more time as translators than we do as trainers. It’s our job to show a dog what certain words in the human world mean to them, and also to show humans what certain behaviors mean in a dog’s world (and sometimes ours too). 

People, for the most part, spend a lot of time talking at their dogs. There are lots of words, lots of gestures, and sometimes very little understanding between the two. I’ve run into many dogs before that think “No!” means, “Yes, buddy! That’s awesome!” or his name, “Fido!” means, “Stop it!” These are incorrect translations that can cause a lot of trouble between the dog and his family. And while traditionally, it somehow becomes the dog’s responsibilty to learn how to communicate properly, at Red Fern we advocate for understanding on both parts; the dog and the handlers.

There are a couple of things to first realize about communication with your dog before you can really begin to teach him, or learn yourself, what your language together is.

First, dogs do not naturally understand spoken language. In fact, their own vocalizations were developed specifically to interact with people (their ancestors, wolves, do not have the common vocalizations dogs do and do not use them amongst each other unless in circumstances of elevated energy — like a warning, play time, or a loss). The only other animals on earth who vocalize their common day-to-day communication the way we do are actually dolphins and whales. So, it’s unfair to expect a dog to naturally understand or tune-into our noises…which we make all day, every day! 

Second, dogs do naturally understand body language. Studies have shown that dogs are so precise in their perception of our body’s movements, that they have developed a way to read humans in particular; by looking at us from the left side of the face to the right. Science tells us this is because the left side shows more emotion than the right, even though the display is so minutely different that even us humans don’t consciously receive it. Body language has become so mute in our society that it’s considered a subconscious form of language…making it difficult for humans to remember that they may be saying, “No!” with their voice but, “Yes!” with their body. 

Last, and maybe most importantly, is that dogs do not consciously understand emotion. That is to say that while a dog feels emotions (almost to the extreme, which we will discuss in another blog post later this month), he or she does not understand them the way we do in a third-party sense. For instance, while a dog will know when you are angry at him – mostly because of those loud noises and fast body movements he’s seeing – he will not know that you’re angry because he got into the trash an hour ago. Even if you show him the destroyed trash can, he will not relate his behavior of getting into the trash with the negative attention he’s receiving. He will only understand that the trash can, or torn up trash itself, is bad and is causing you to react negatively to him. 

It’s this last subject that seems to confuse the communication between dog and man the most during training. It has long been believed that if you show your dog what he’s done wrong, he’ll understand. I mean, he cowers and he shows shame and guilt, right? No. Those behaviors he’s showing are not displays of guilt. They are instead a form of submission; one that he’s likely used in the past when you’ve been upset with him. He’s reading your body’s negative movements, hearing the tone in your voice has changed, and is responding to these things. He is in no way responding out of guilt over a past-action. Dogs are incapable of this emotional chain of events.

It is accurate to say that dogs who are well-trained, or well-conditioned, are actually bi-lingual. They have learned the words we’re saying to them actually have definition in behavior. It is critical for us as humans to recognize this, and to see that we have to take the time in not only teaching our dog what these words mean but also to learn a bit ourselves about a dog’s natural language. Recognize that you cannot punish a dog, but you can correct him. This rule alone helps tons of families with their confused pets! 

So, since a dog is more apt to understand body language, do your furry friend a favor when training and associate every command-word you’re teaching with a phsyical cue that accompanies it. Like when we teach dogs at Red Fern to sit, we bring the hand up toward our chest. It’s a full-range movement, and is done with the word being said. The movement will bring more attention to us, because that’s what young dogs in particular are looking for, and when they are rewarded for the proper sit they associate the movement with the behavior (with the sound of the word as subtext) Over time, we fade the hand movement out and use just the verbal command. And we can also do a fancy type of silent work too, to keep our dogs interested in working!

Decide in advance what physical cue will be associated with what word in your dog’s vocab lessons. And I do mean all the vocab lessons, not just the foundation commands of “Sit,” “Down,” or “Stay.”

“Off the couch,” becomes point to the ground.

“Load up,” becomes swing a hand toward the open car door.

“Come here,” becomes pat your side excitedly.


Remember that your dog needs to be on a learning curve. As he achieves retention of command words, change your environment, your tone, and phase out and in the physical cues as you go. If you notice your dog is struggling when you “raise the bar” then go back a step, recognizing he’s not ready to advance just yet.