what is your face saying?

It’s all about the dog; dog training, dog body language, dog food, dog gear, dog behavior, dog tricks, dog etc. I believe that sometimes we are so focused on learning more and doing more that we over look some of the obvious moments with our dogs. Like what are we doing to encourage our dogs, or not doing and discouraging our dogs.

During our classes this week, we had some really cool discussions on handler body language. What are you telling your dog? Anyone that has done agility at the competition level knows, if you’re not consistent with your body language, you can look forward to the  train wreck on course.

What are your shoulders, arms, hips, knees and toes telling your dog? Does it look like your playing twister out there, or are you aligned and direct with your body so there isn’t any guess work? I play with three sports, freestyle, agility, and treibball. Consistency with my body language when I am working on directionals and distance are vital to success.

But what is missed so often, and is just as important in my opinion, is what our facial expressions are telling our dog. Have you ever seen a handler try to call their distracted dog with a nice voice, but their face is curled up in a knot of frustration because the dog isn’t coming? Guess what the dog might have seen? If I was a dog I would have to weigh that pretty carefully, ‘keep smelling this bush or go to scary person, keep smelling the bush or go to scary person… bush sounds better’.

Consistency in what we say, how we say it (tone), and what our body/face is expressing, is super important. Our facial expressions can open up a trusting working relationship with our dogs, they can also shut them down. Now I’m not saying to go around looking like a cheer leader all day, that would be just as freaky as frowning all day. But rather be honest in your expectations with your dog in regards to your communication. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard owners say, “my dog won’t come when I call her, she’s so stubborn”. When I stop and watch the whole picture, it is almost always the handlers body/face language that is actually keeping the dog away. Same thing with dog sports and working out the glitches, almost always handler error.

It really gets better once you acknowledge what you need to do in order to make things better and more consistent.

My daughter was kind enough to let me take these photos to give you an idea of the variety of facial expressions I see when people are working with their dogs. This isn’t exactly like the Sesame Street, which one of these is not like the other, they all might be valid within a specific context. But the context I am going to use is handler focus, working relationship, people interested in their dogs working with them not against them.

note – I don’t know the statistics on how many times we change our facial expressions per couple of seconds, but I bet it’s a lot. Keep in mind we are fluid and ever changing, this is just to assist handlers, and to be more honest and consistent with what they are telling their dogs. Sometimes tweaking the small stuff makes a huge difference!

Eyes to side, lips pushed forward and tight – no dog will willingly come to this. This face is stay away, even if the words were seemingly nice. Not a great face to encourage great performance. Handler needs to do something to relax and breathe and then start with their dog in a new space.

Eyes up and not engaging. This expression is a shut down of energy for dogs. Don’t believe me, go try it in your yard. If your looking to build more motivation with your dog, getting frustrated and rolling your eyes will not help.

Squinty tight eyes, crinkled brow/nose/lips. Dogs know the look of disgust. Again another shut down expression. If your dog does something that disgusts you, let it go and move on, this look will push your dog away.

This is the classic, the smile that never reaches the eyes. You may think you are being nice to your dog by smiling, and even a good faker of it’s OK, Really, but you don’t truly mean it if it doesn’t reach the eyes, and simultaneously, the heart. Ever had the experience with a person who does the fake smile with you, it doesn’t exactly leave you warm and cozy.

The look of disbelief, another shut down when working on motivation and the working relationship. let it go and move on.

Pretending to be happy by widening the eyes. Keep in mind, you can’t trick a trickster, they can sense the real meaning that something is not right. A good way to put a dog into conflict.

The smile meets the eyes, honest and sincere. A puppy would come to this every time. A great face to have when building motivation in performance work.

The smile meets the eyes with mouth open, the head slightly back, honest and sincere. A puppy would come to this every time.

Enjoy working with your dogs, be honest about what you are telling them, and encourage them with appropriate body/face language. It takes practice, but it’s worth it!


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Lisa Marie Cook says:

    Ha ha ha ha!!!! Pictures 1, 3 and 5 have her mother written all over them! Your article is inspiring to really think about what we are saying with our bodies.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Lisa you are such a dork…!

  2. Eleenie says:

    Wow, it never occurred to me that my dogs could read my facial expressions. Thanks for sharing and well done to your daughter for being such a good sport!

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Hi Eleenie, it’s almost the first thing they look at with their own species and us. How we carry our eyes and mouth give them an indication of safe or not. A lot of dogs hesitate greeting a black faced, long haired dog (if they didn’t grow up with one) because it’s really hard to get a read on the face.

      Pip is a super sport when it comes to my little ‘projects’. We were all laughing a good deep laugh yesterday when we were doing this… it was good!

  3. Stuart Hall says:

    Good post Nancy and Piper. This is especially interesting when considering that “the core” emotinal facial expressions are universally recognized in humans across all cultures – from bushmen to the Bush’s. Given the fact that we have co-evolved with dogs for such a long time and our faces hardly ever lie, it makes sense that this is a key ingredient of body language. So, I guess this means that I need to be truely happy when my dog blows me off and takes that off course…

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      off course.. or a better more creative course? that is the question! Loved the photo of you and Hondo in the Hall bar…

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