Animals|Pets|Animal Communication|Body Language

Just Two Ingredients Create A Secret Sauce For Unwanted Pet Behavior

Unambiguous body language puts animal communication on steroids. Can you hear your animal now? Do they hear you?

Bonnie Kreitler
6 min readDec 19, 2021

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Photo by Oscar Sutton on Unpslash

Animal training requires communication and communication always involves a sender and a receiver. Good communication flows back and forth between the two.

When communication alternates back and forth as the sender and the receiver repeatedly take turns as equal participants in their dialog, that creates opportunities for deep learning on both sides.

People sometimes neglect to take animals' default communication settings into account during training sessions. They want animals to respond to speech communication the way our fellow humans do. A better understanding of the communication differences between us and our two-legged or four-legged friends can help both sides claim success without struggle or confusion.

First, what’s your mindset?

Do you think of training as something you DO TO an animal?

Or do you think of it as something you DO WITH an animal?

Every time you interact with an animal, the animal learns something from that interaction.

How about you? Do you see interactions with your pet as learning opportunities?

For better or worse, learning occurs at some level in your interactions whether or not you are aware that you’re training your horse or dog or cat (yes, cats can be trained, though they often seem to prefer talking to themselves). It happens whether you’re conscious or clueless. Become more aware of the process and your animal communication will improve.

What Did You Say?

Humans are hard-wired to communicate through speech.

We like to train animals to associate certain words with specific actions. That seems like we’re in a conversation, our default setting. A quick internet search turns up tales of dogs claiming vocabularies of a thousand or more words (mostly intense border collies).

But just for fun, listen to someone babbling along to their dog or cat and ask yourself a question. Is that person really conversing with their animal? Or talking to hear themselves. Or to be heard by people around them? Hmmm. Think of that Gary Larson cartoon where a man is conversing with his dog but all the dog hears is, “Blah, blah, blah, ‘Ginger.’ Blah, blah, blah, ‘Ginger,’ ” and you’ve got the picture.

And while animals do have vocalizations meaningful to those of their species, their “speech” nuances mostly escape humans.

Animals, on the other hand, are hard-wired to communicate through body language.

They may learn to associate a particular human vocalization with a specific action. But first and foremost, they’re paying very close attention to our body language. Reading body language accurately can spell the difference between life and death in the wild.

Body language speaks much louder than words as far as our pets are concerned. And it may help to remember that humans are animals, too, as far as biology is concerned.

The Two-Ingredient Secret Sauce

The first secret ingredient for training success is paying attention to the rich detail in an animal’s body language. Learning to correctly translate what your animal “says” with its body language is critical to productive communication between you.

The second secret ingredient for training communication is paying attention to what your body language communicates to your animal. Your body language speaks volumes about your state of mind and your intentions. Animals default to believing body language before words when those two indicators conflict.

When you become good at observing and interpreting your animal’s body language and at monitoring what your body language communicates to the animal, your two-way communication and learning take a quantum leap.

Body Language Is Not Hard To Learn

Reading body language is a skill anyone can learn. Consider using a journal to track the body language you use while training your pet.

Track your observations about connections between the animal’s body language, your body language, and the actions that followed.

Emotional states influence actions and reactions, so note those, too. Patterns will start to emerge. Use your observations to switch up your training techniques and record the results. You’re learning as your pet is learning. Win-win!

The body has a vocabulary. And it doesn't lie, especially when it comes to critters. What’s going on in your pet’s mind is reflected in its body language. The vocabulary includes:

  • Breathing pattern
  • Eyes and Focus
  • Direction of movement
  • Speed of movement
  • Ear position
  • Tail position
  • Body position
  • Muscle tension
  • Reaction to odors
  • Reaction to touch
  • Reaction to noise
  • Vocalizations

Try. Modify. Try Again.

You reading of your dog’s body language vocabulary offers information that can direct your next training try. Your action creates a reaction from your pet. If you get the response you want, reward it in some way your animal understands as, “Yes!” “That’s right!” Repeat and refine, repeatedly asking until the desired response becomes a habit.

What if your action creates an overreaction or no reaction from the animal? Don’t consider those failures on your part. They still give you essential information about modifying whatever you did to create the response you didn’t want.

You try and observe. Modify. Try your modified approach. Modify again if necessary.

Rinse and repeat until the message sent and the message received match.

Two Demonstrations

A delivery truck pulls up. Your dog hears it and goes ballistic. How do you handle this annoying behavior?

Scene 1. You rush toward the door shouting, “Sheba!” “No!” (Or insert your favorite expletive here).

Your blood pressure shoots up. You ooze adrenaline-laced pheromones. Maybe you’re so hyped that you whack Sheba or yank her back by the collar. Your actions amplify the commotion.

You push yourself between Sheba and the door while she continues to act up. She continues trying to wedge her nose between you and the door. You try to open the door just a crack to receive the package while preventing her from bolting outside (how’s your adrenaline level now?).

Or you chicken out and wait until the truck pulls away before opening the door. You still keep a hand on Sheba’s collar as she continues grumbling while you open the door to retrieve the box.

Finally, things calm down. Ahhhh.

Did you see yourself in any part of this scenario?

Scene 2. You hear the truck and Sheba barking. You head for the door, cheerfully warbling that there’s nothing to worry about. “I’ve got this.” “Chill.” Or you can say, “Hot dog!” if that works for you and Sheba.

Before you open the door, you point and ask Sheba to sit in her designated “someone’s at the door” spot and wait. Maybe you’ve even developed a “calm down” cue like stroking her neck or rubbing her chest that helps her deal with her adrenaline rush.

Adopting your “I own this space” posture, you head to the door, open it, and take your package. Maybe you shut the door. Or perhaps you invite Sheba over to say hello because this is one of those awesome delivery folks who arrive bearing dog cookies!

You reward Sheba in some way that tells her, “Good dog!” “Great job!” Maybe give her a piece of hot dog.

Did you see yourself in any part of this scenario?

Can you see how your body language might affect your pet? Can you imagine how Sheba interpreted the human side of each of these “conversations.”

To Recap

Communication is a two-way street. You and your pet are constantly communicating through body language.

While you may not always be aware of what your animal’s body language says, your pet is always monitoring and interpreting yours.

Understand that your body language communicates volumes to your pet. And vice versa. Then watch your animal relationships become richer and more rewarding!

Enjoy the animals in your life.

Bonnie Kreitler is an author, journalist, animal addict, observer, and explorer of the universe creating connections between our critter relationships and our life lessons at ramblingdog.com. Her most recent book, I Heard Your Dog Died, is a fictional journey through pet grief suitable for humans of all ages.

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Bonnie Kreitler

Author, journalist, animal addict, observer, and explorer creating connections between our critter relationships and life lessons at ramblingdog.com