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Through a dog’s eyes: understanding and strengthening the bond between you and your dog.

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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Thursday, 1 February 2024

Australians love dogs; in fact, they’re our most popular choice of animal companion with almost 50% of households including at least one canine family member!

We value the relationship we have with our dogs and the joy, love, and companionship they give us, but how often do we stop to consider how our dogs experience their relationship with us? And how can we better understand them in order to strengthen the bond between dogs and their guardians?

(And, the RSPCA Animal Welfare Seminar 2024 will explore the relationship between humans and animals in detail – why not register now?)

A dog centric view.

Most dog guardians may believe that the relationship they have with their dog is an equal one; after all there’s a reason for the enduring label of ‘man’s best friend’.

But while we may believe this to be true, when it comes to the dogs we share our lives with, the bond between a dog and their guardian is often more nuanced.

While some like to joke that their dog rules the household, the reality is that dogs live in a ‘human’s world’, in the sense that it’s the humans in their lives who largely define and manage the interactions they share. As such, there is a distinct power imbalance that underpins the relationship, and while we know the many ways dogs can enrich the lives of their humans, do dogs benefit in the same way?

Dogs are social animals and one of the first species to be domesticated, sharing a reciprocal relationship with humans for thousands of years. They form strong attachments with their guardians and studies have shown that dogs may actively choose proximity to humans and can experience varying degrees of separation anxiety when they’re left for periods of time. They often seek their human out for comfort when startled or frightened and are also able to recognise emotions in human’s facial expressions.

Our companion dogs also depend on humans to meet many of their needs. Most guardians care very much about their dog’s wellbeing and want to experience the best relationship possible with them; this is where understanding a dog’s behaviour and body language is crucial.

Understanding a dog’s language.

Being able to read a dog’s body language will help you to understand how they show what they are feeling (e.g., happy, scared, anxious, stressed, bored, overheated etc) and, therefore, is an excellent tool to help caregivers to meet their dog’s needs effectively, and bring out the best in the relationship for both. For example, understanding their dog’s body language signals that they are scared allows caregivers to remove their dog from a threatening situation to make them more comfortable and increases a dog’s trust that their caregivers will keep them safe. It’s also important to pay attention to the context in which a dog’s behaviour occurs; for example, a new environment or unknown animal or sound (such as fireworks) associated with a fearful reaction lets you that this may be a trigger to avoid or manage carefully in the future.

Signs indicating that a dog is content include a combination of a relaxed body posture, weight distributed evenly across all four paws, ears in a natural/neutral position and an interested and alert face. If feeling playful, a dog will often display a ‘play bow’ – lowing their front half down, raising their bottom, and wagging their tail and they may bark with excitement.

Signs indicating a dog is worried include displaying a low head and body position, with their tail tucked under, ears back and possible excessive yawning. They may lie down to avoid eye contact and turn away from the object that is stressing them, sometimes raising a front paw or lip licking. When a dog displays these behaviours, they are communicating that they’re uncomfortable and don’t want people to go near them.

Signs indicating a dog is angry include standing with a stiffened body posture, weight forward, ears and fur raised, with dark and enlarged pupils. They may snarl or expose their teeth and attempt to stare down the human or animal they find threatening.

An unhappy dog will indicate their displeasure through a combination of laying down and cowering, with ears flat, teeth showing and tail between their legs.

In both scenarios the dog is communicating they want the humans near them to go or stay away.

For any dog guardian, the key to positive interactions and a strong bond with their dog starts with learning and understanding a dog’s body language, confident but gentle handling, and giving their dog the final choice about when, where, and how they interact with them. This promotes trust and a sense of safety and sets a solid foundation to a fulfilling relationship for both guardian and their furry family member.  

Have we piqued your curiosity, and do you want to learn more about how animals experience the world? Join us for the 2024 Animal Welfare Seminar, Strengthening our relationship with animals, to hear from leading experts about how we can support animals’ best lives.

Interested in learning more?

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Knowledgebase • Offsite
How do I communicate with my dog?
Body language is one of a dog’s main forms of communication, so it’s really important that we learn how to understand them.
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