The Importance of Body Language and Facial Cues in Communication

Our ability to communicate with dogs is one of the primary reasons why we were able to nurture  our human-canine bond so effectively. Body language is an important communication tool as since they are unable to speak, the rely heavily on body language. Our bodies communicate concepts to our dogs and effective communication relies on knowing how you are displaying yourself. Dogs can pick up on subtle body language ques and will change their behaviors accordingly. If you are happy and calm during a stressful situation, it will help your dog relax.

My body language and its role in communication affects Odin and I during our daily walks. Odin is leash reactive towards other dogs which results in him barking/lunging towards the other dogs when we pass them. When I would prepare to pass by other dogs, I would become tense, shorten/tighten the leash, and my body would display my stress. I did not realize that Odin could read my body language and stress. By tensing up, I was inadvertently signaling my worry to Odin, which in turn made him concerned and defensive. Later on, when I started to walk more carefree and relaxed by other dogs, he began to relax too. Confidence and reassurance in your body language when approaching a stressful situation helps your dog also feel more confident and reassured. Although Odin is still is reactive, his reactivity is significantly better when I appear to be confident and reassure him.

This week I was reading an interesting study by Corsin Muller at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna about whether or not dogs can discriminate emotional expressions of human faces without relying on other cues. The study sought to determine whether or not dogs could distinguish between happy and angry expressions on human faces. The dogs were presented with images of happy faces and angry faces on a computer screen and were asked to “nose-touch” one of the faces, and regardless of which face they touched they would receive a treat.


It was discovered that the dogs performance in the study was affected by the face they were touching. Dogs were quicker to “touch” the happy faces while they were more hesitant and less inclined to “touch” the angry faces. The study determined that dogs CAN distinguish our emotion from our faces and it makes sense. Why would a dog want to approach an angry looking human? We (humans) generally display anger towards our dogs when they are in trouble and they associate the expressions on our faces with punishment. This study showed the important role our expressions play in communicating with canine companions

It is important to be aware of your body language and how you are presenting yourself, as you dog is looking for cues on how to behave. Training should be fun and relaxing, and communicating confidence while training will increase your success. If you communicate your confidence and reassurance during training, they will be more likely to respond positively and the training will be more effective.


Müller CA, Schmitt K, Barber ALA, Huber L. 2015. Dogs can discriminate emotional expressions of human faces. Current Biology, 25, 601—605.

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