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Science Looks at Canine Body Language

A recent research study in Japan looked at a dog's body language as indicators of learning during training sessions.

When you're training your dog, are you aware of his or her body language? Researchers found that their body language may in fact signal to you that they are learning what you are attempting to teach them.

Masahi Hasegawa, Nobuyo Ohtani, and Mitsuaki Ohta of the Azabu University School of Veterinary Medicine in Japan published an article in 2014 regarding their study of canine body language and learning. Their project looked at how a dogs' posture, facial expressions, and overall body language changed during an operant conditioning-based program.

The study involved 46 dogs with no prior training from a mix of breeds, which was confirmed by giving them a verbal and hand cue to sit which the dogs did not understand. 17 were male and 26 were female and all were between 12 months and 6 years of age. The handler engaged each dog in five-minute training sessions teaching the sit behavior using food rewards. Each session was followed by three minutes of rest. This was then followed by 20 minutes testing the dogs' responses to hand cues. These tests were conducted over three days and nine times per dog. During each 20-minute test, the researchers recorded the behavior of the dogs by looking at their eyes, mouth, ears, and tail.

The researchers found that there was a strong correlation between the number of times a training event occurred and the dogs' success on the test, which would follow suit with what we all know about teaching our dogs through repetition and practice.

Regarding the dogs' body language, the researchers found that those that performed the best on the tests displayed wide eyes, forward ears, closed mouths, and a tail held high without wagging. The forward ear position was seen as combined with focused attention on the handler, and the researchers felt that the sustained forward motion of the ears indicated a dog that was attentive to the handler, as well as wide eyes focused on the handler's face. The length of time the tail was held straight and up was correlated with the dogs correctly completely the tests with a high degree of accuracy. If the dogs' tails were not wagging, or if the dogs displayed a short and fast wagging motion, this was predictive of the dogs getting a high score on the tests.

They did note, though, that further study on tail motion involving multiple breeds is recommended since there is a variety of tail length and shapes among breeds, and some dogs cannot hold their tail straight up. Therefore, it is not clear from the study if tail position and movement is strongly correlated with learning. They also were unsure about the correlation with the closed mouth, as eventually the majority of dogs began to pant during the tests, which could be related to stress or other environmental reasons.

While the results of their study may not be a surprise to people who regularly work and train dogs, it's useful to note that they found correlations with these behaviors across many breeds. So, in the future when working with your dogs, take a moment to observe their body language, particularly when they get the "aha" moment and understand a behavior you're teaching, and see if you see the same results the researchers did!

Source: Hasegawa M, Ohtani N, Ohta M. (2014). Dogs' body language relevant to learning achievement. Animals, 4, 45-58.


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