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Building Positive Relationships with Dogs Begins with Reading Their Body Language

Jill Breitner is a dog trainer and has spent over 40 years training dogs and developing the relationship between people and dogs. In this weeks blog, Jill writes about the importance of communicating effectively with your dog.

In my early 20’s, I lived in France and it’s where I began my dog training business. After working as a veterinary technician in the USA, for a couple of years, it became apparent to me that people had little understanding of the ways in which dogs communicate with each other and with us.

It wasn’t long before I realized that my French wasn’t good enough to translate the subtle nuances of dog training to be successful as a trainer. This observation, then led me to get a very clear picture of how that relates to our relationships with dogs. Follow me, because this subtle bit about communication bears paying close attention to. You know how when we are speaking to someone who speaks a different language, we speak to them as if they are deaf? We speak loudly, enunciating our words to make it clearer when none of that makes any difference at all. Still we are trying to communicate and failing. Why? Because we don’t speak their language and this is exactly what happens with our relationships with dogs. We don’t speak their language and we must learn it to achieve the closest and best relationships we can with dogs.

How can we think that we can bond with dogs when we can’t communicate with them? If we don’t know how to read their body language, which is critical to any relationship; then how can we truly have a positive relationship with them. Sure, we have relationships with our dogs but it could be much deeper, much more compatible and more cooperative when we are able to see things from a dog’s perspective and we can only do that when we can see what it is they are trying so hard to communicate with us. That is, understand their emotions by learning to read their body language.


Recently I had a puppy in training, Baxter; a 6 month old Labradoodle and the key issues his guardians wanted me to work with was his bad behavior of excessive barking and lunging at people and other dogs. He was unmanageable and completely out of control. Many behaviors dogs exhibit are not only mislabeled but are manifestations of misunderstood emotions expressed through their first language, body language. Baxter was anxious about meeting dogs and people. This pup was a perfect example of being labeled as having bad behaviors needing to be fixed when what needed to happen was to glean an understanding of his emotions so that we can help him feel less anxious around dogs and people.

After a lengthy conversation with Baxter’s guardians and spending one day with him, I realized that his barking was due to lack of proper socialization at a critical period in puppies lives. Between the age of 7 weeks and 4 months of age is the socialization period where pups must be properly socialized with people, dogs, other animals, (all friendly) and it’s also when trust and bonding begins.

When pups aren’t properly socialized during this time, they fail to respond appropriately when faced with new dogs, people, kids, cats, etc. and it shows up differently, in different dogs. Barking, fear, running away, aggression. It’s similar to a child who never went to preschool and shows up in kindergarten with no social skills. They don’t know how to share, (resource guarding), yelling louder than the other kids (barking), pushing other kids around, (bullying or playing too rough) or even aggression, punching kids, pushing them down, (biting or standing over dogs).

Baxter wasn’t a bad puppy. His behaviors were his way of saying, help me I’m feeling anxious about meeting other dogs and people. His behavior was one of frustration and he needed help, not correcting his behavior. Knowing this, I was able to stay at a distance from the triggers (dogs and people) in order to keep his attention on me, rather than becoming totally immersed in his frustration unable to focus on anything else but the triggers and together I was able to change his response from frustration to acceptance and joy. Little by little, we moved closer to his triggers so that today we can walk by other dogs and people with no anxiety. He has met and played with many friendly dogs of all sizes and ages, walked by, over 100 dogs of many different ilks without any barking. What needed to happen for Baxter was an understanding of his emotions by understanding his body language, thereby facilitating a relationship built on trust between him and I, so he knew that I had his back and when he was less anxious he got to meet other dogs which is what he wanted and needed.

Many people know the obvious signals dogs use to communicate but the more subtle ones mostly go unnoticed and it’s these expressions that are the most telling. The tongue flick, look away, tail posture, blinking eyes, yawning, hypervigilance, facial tension and more that reveal the emotional state of dogs. If we take the time to learn how they express themselves with their body language, we will be going far in bettering our relationships with dogs. We owe it to them to learn how to speak dog.

Jill Breitner

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