Dogs are intelligent creatures who are able to pick up on verbal, non-verbal and physical cues, not only from other animals, but from their human companions as well. In addition to instinct, dogs also learn by association, and can attribute certain expressions to certain behaviors. Most humans tend to express themselves physically as well as through facial expressions, which your dog can also pick up on.
During obedience training, your dog comes to associate your commands with certain body stances. This is especially true if you are training your dog to respond to physical or verbal commands in a specific type of environment. For example, show dogs and hunting dogs are often trained in such a way that they can respond to even the slightest movements or expressions of their owners, even the lift of an eyebrow or a nod of the head.
Humans often use the whole body in conveying facial expressions, and dogs come to associate these two actions with particular emotions. For example, if, when you come home at the end of the day, you give your dog a big smile and kneel down to greet him, he will associate both the smile and the movement with the anticipation of being shown love and attention. He will then likely associate every smile and kneel with playfulness. The relationship between you and your dog is unique, and he may not equate the same types of expressions on other humans in quite the same way he does yours.
Just as humans often combine facial and body movements, there is also a natural tendency to match the tone of the voice with facial expressions. Smiling and speaking in a loving manner to your dog while physically caring for him will make him associate the register of your voice with comfort and care. Speaking in a stern voice is usually combined with a rigid physical stance, which conveys to dogs, in movement and in sound, his human companion’s displease. In this sense, a dog can learn to associate a frown and angry voice with the trash can that’s been tipped over.
Dogs learn based on experience, behavior and repetition, and learning to read human expressions is no different. Sometimes, dogs must be “retrained” in how they associate expressions. For example, a dog that has been abused may equate his previous owner’s angry expression, paired with the command “outside!” to mean punishment, while a loving new owner’s smile paired with the same command means fun play time.
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