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Body Language Lessons From Your Dog

How and why dogs are experts at nonverbal communication.

Key points

  • Dogs have heightened senses that contribute to their ability to read others’ nonverbal cues.
  • Dogs and humans are social animals, but dogs are better at nonverbal communication because it’s all they have.
  • Humans can develop the ability to communicate nonverbally by practicing what dogs do.

Some people are exceptionally skilled at reading others’ body language – they are what I call “masters of nonverbal communication.” But regardless of how well a human reads other people’s nonverbal cues, the family dog is much better. We can learn some valuable lessons in emotional and nonverbal communication from dogs.

Examples. Our golden retriever sleeps in our bedroom. Although she appears to be in a deep sleep, the sound of motion in our bed causes her to perk up, look, and listen. She can actually distinguish, from sound and body movement, whether I am getting up to go to the bathroom or getting out of bed to start the day (in the latter case, she leads me to the backdoor to let her out).

Dogs (and cats as well) are closely attuned to sounds. Our dog appears in the kitchen each time I open the refrigerator or her treat jar. The cats arrive when I open the kitchen drawer to take out the can opener.

When my wife is not feeling well or is sad, the dog (and the cats) comes and lay down beside her out of sympathy. The dog can tell if we are irritated at her or if we are about to reward her or give her love.

Why and How Are Dogs So Good at Body Language?

First, dogs are social animals, and they communicate exclusively through visual, auditory, and olfactory cues. Dogs are actually able to tell where another dog has been through the smells that the dog encountered and picked up along its journey. That’s how wolves can tell when a fellow wolf has caught prey, and even how to locate the carcass. They have acute senses that give them an advantage over humans, but they also get a lot more practice.

Humans are also social animals, but our ability to communicate verbally causes us to over-focus on language for communication and not spend as much time honing our nonverbal communication skills.

What Are Some Body Language Lessons From Your Dog?

Pay Attention. Stop, look, and listen. Like the family pet, focus on the other person. Examine their nonverbal cues – the facial expressions that indicate emotion. These postural cues might tell you something about their mood and energy level, the tone of voice that might indicate pain or stress.

Practice. Make it a habit to improve your nonverbal communication skills, and work at it. Eavesdrop (nonverbally) on people interacting and see if you can tell, from their body language alone, what they are talking about, what they are feeling, and, perhaps, what their relationship to one another is. Watch a TV show with the sound off and see if you can figure out what’s going on.

Get Feedback. You will not develop as a good reader of body language cues if you don’t get feedback about when you are accurate in your reading and when you are not. So, ask others if your reading of their body language was or was not accurate.

Realize that developing nonverbal skills is hard work. Your dog has been doing it all its life.

In what ways have you noticed your pets’ abilities to communicate via body language?

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