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dog with a ball
"Dogs have an ability to read many aspects of our body language. "

Understanding Our Body Language

Most dog owners think their dog understands them. When we feel excited, our dog joins in the celebrations. When we feel down, our dog sits quietly by our side. Dogs have lived with humans for thousands of years and rely on us for their everyday needs, so it makes sense that they have become tuned in to our emotions.
We use this ability, of dogs to understand us, when we train them. A verbal command like ‘Sit’ is issued and our dog obeys. We may also give a hand gesture and the dog soon learns to follow this, without us even talking to them. Have you ever considered just how much your dog understands?

Words of wisdom

Most dogs quickly learn to understand the word ‘walk’ and many will also learn quite a few commands. Owners tend to think their dogs understand everything they say but may only have taught around 5-10 specific commands. According to Professor Stanley Coren, the average trained dog may understand up to 160 words. An exceptionally talented Border Collie named Rico was able to understand over 200 words.
Your dog may not be quite so quick on the uptake but with training you should be able to expand their understanding. Even when your dog does not pick up on your vocabulary, your body language may help you to communicate with them.


Stay on point

Dogs have an ability to read many aspects of our body language. We pat our knees and they come running over to greet us. We are angry and they stay away.
Amazingly, dogs are also able to follow a human pointing gesture. If we place food in a sealed container and leave another container empty and point to one, the many dogs will choose to go to the one we are pointing to. Even if we simply take a step towards the container, they follow our gesture. If your dog does not see you throw their ball in the park and you point to it or pretend to throw the ball again, they will go straight to the ball. Often, all we have to do is look at an object for our dog to go and investigate that object.


Not only humans…

Dogs and cats are able to understand one another’s body language, especially when they are reared together from a young age.

Increase your dog’s understanding:

  • When you give your dog a toy or another item, name it and do this repeatedly. You can then test your dog by asking them to go to the item or retrieve it. For example, it can be useful to teach the word ‘Bed’. You can then send your dog to their bed when you need them to have some quiet time. Don’t forget to use rewards or praise to reinforce the behaviour
  • When you interact with your dog, be sure to use gestures such as pointing or stepping towards objects when you use a retrieve command. This will help your dog understand what you want.
  • Your dog may use trial and error to determine what you want from them. For instance, you may ask them to fetch a ball and they bring back a stick. This is normal behaviour until they have learned the correct command. Praise or treat your dog when they get it right. Even if this is only due to chance, your dog will learn what pleased you and will repeat the desired behaviour.


About Dr Joanne Righetti

Dr Joanne RighettiDr Joanne Righetti is an animal behaviourist, educating the public and professionals in all aspects of the human–animal relationship. Her background is in zoology, with a PhD in animal behaviour and a counselling diploma – qualifications which enable her to work with all sorts of animals – including the human variety! Joanne likes to help pet owners understand their pet's behaviour and solve any pet behaviour problems. She also consults to a variety of organisations including non-profit organisations, commercial companies and councils and is involved in a variety of media including regular spots on radio. Joanne is an honorary associate of the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, University of Sydney. Find out more about Joanne at

Last updated: 24 April 2015 at 05:23 PM
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