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A dog uses his entire body, from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail, to communicate with other canines. A dog’s body language sends signals like “Come and play” or “Back off, buddy!” Dogs are also acutely perceptive of human movement and gesturing and will pay attention to our body language even when our words are communicating something totally different (not surprising since we’re speaking in a foreign language to begin with).
However, human body language differs significantly from that of canines, and messages can get lost in translation. This means you may be sending your dog mixed signals without even knowing it. The most common body language mishaps I encounter tend to happen when a person is greeting a dog.
Here are three common ways human body language can be misconstrued by our canine friends.
Think about the last time you greeted someone: As you said hello, chances are that you stood with your body facing the other person, made direct eye contact and reached out for a handshake or a hug. While humans welcome this type of greeting, a dog can find it intimidating and frightening.
When greeting a dog, it is important to let him make the first move. A dog’s space should always be respected and never invaded — otherwise a bite may ensue. Our instinct is to face a dog head-on when greeting, to make eye contact and to reach out to give a friendly pat in order to establish a connection with the dog. But this behavior can be threatening and overwhelming to a canine. Instead, sit down or crouch close to the ground with your side turned toward the dog; look away and ignore him until he initiates a greeting. Be wary of close contact, like a hug or kiss; instead, pet the dog in neutral areas, like his chest or shoulder — but only if the dog solicits contact first.
Not all dogs will hesitate to make the first move in a greeting situation; instead, you may find yourself saying hello to an overly zealous and jumping canine. When the dog jumps up, your instinct may be to look right at him and say no; unfortunately, eye contact reinforces the behavior rather than deterring it. If the dog is also pushed away or held down by his collar when he jumps, he may be even more confused — he may see the touching and pushing as a game or a reward of attention, rather than a deterrent. Alternatively, these physical gestures may be perceived as threatening, and the dog may become more anxious; as an appeasement gesture, he may do even more frantic jumping.
The better response to jumping is to stand like a statue, with your arms folded in toward your chest, and look away when the dog jumps. As soon as all four paws are on the floor, calm petting or verbal affection may ensue, communicating to the dog that jumping takes away attention while standing calmly reaps reward.
For people who are afraid of a dog, the instinctive response often is to fling their arms up in the air, stand on tiptoes, jump back, squeal and attempt to run away. But even friendly dogs may be intrigued or excited by this behavior, because fast, erratic movements of this sort resemble the way prey would act. To the dog, this reaction looks like a game, and he is likely to jump up, mouth fast-moving limbs or give chase. In rare scenarios where the encounter is aggressive in nature, the aggression can escalate with these types of movements.
Though it’s counterintuitive — and difficult if you’re nervous around dogs — it’s much better to freeze in place, avoid eye contact and turn your head slightly away. Stay still and fold your arms into your chest if needed. If you do move, use slow, fluid movements to back away from the dog, to deter chasing. Also, remember to breathe! The automatic response when we’re anxious is to hold our breath. Relaxed breathing communicates that you are calm in the situation; holding your breath may tell the dog you’re tense and about to react.
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