How to Read Your Dog’s Mind

This article appeared in the Nov 2016 Speaking of Dogs Newsletter.

How to Read Your Dog’s Mind

Last night, I read a dog’s mind. His owner was working on recall, training his dog to come when called. I suggested, “Billy is going to notice the person sitting over there on his way past and is going to want to go say hi. I want you to recall from a closer distance and angle away from that person so he’s further away.”

Guess what? The owner made a mistake and didn’t angle away from the person… and Billy recalled half way and then ran up to the person sitting across the room to say hi.

Billy’s owner said to me, “Did you read his mind? How did you know he was going to do that?”

In a sense, I did read his mind… and you can too!

Look Where the Dog Looks, Notice What He Notices

The most critical element of “mind reading” is to look where your dog looks and notice what he’s noticing. Dog’s don’t rest their gaze on things for no reason, and you can learn a lot about what a dog is thinking simply by noticing what they look at, how long they look at it, how they look at it, and how frequently they look at it.

This is what I saw Billy do. As he passed by the person, he looked over, pulled his ears back, and gave a little wiggle. It took him about one second between noticing the person and disengaging, but it was a very telling second!

This is such a simple idea, but it can be hard to do in daily life. It takes a lot of practice to notice these subtle changes in your dog’s behaviour, especially brief glances and slight changes in body language.

What Has the Dog Done in the Past?

How your dog has behaved previously will give you a lot of insights. This is especially important for owners of reactive or fearful dogs, because there could be a lot riding on your ability to see patterns in your dog’s behaviour so that you can take appropriate action before a situation escalates.

Billy often looks at me in the same way he looked at the person he went to say hi to. I know that when he looks at me like that, he will greet me enthusiastically if given the opportunity. Given that pattern of behaviour, when I saw him noticing the person in the training area, I speculated that he would likely do the same thing he’s done in the past.

Body Language

Gaining an understanding of body language is a critical aspect to learning to mind read. Body language needs to be read in the context of the situation, your dog’s past history of behaviour, and each body part relative to the whole picture. For example, a fast wagging tail doesn’t necessarily indicate that a dog is friendly; it just indicates that a dog is aroused. It might be that the dog is excited to see you, but it might also be that the dog is angry or agitated. You can only know by looking at the whole picture.

When Billy looked at the person he wanted to greet, he dropped his head down and forward, crinkled his ears back, licked his lips, squinted his eyes, and had a soft, low wagging tail. I was not worried that Billy was going to run at this person angrily because his body language was typical of a polite and soft greeting. However, this body language also indicated that he was likely to veer off course from his recall.

An Emotional Assessment

Another mind reading strategy is to understand how your dog feels in any given situation. Strong emotion will always override your training, so training that is falling apart can be a good assessment of your dog’s emotional state. Your dog could be fearful or angry, happy, or over-stimulated. A few good tests of emotional state include:

• Will your dog eat treats? If they won’t eat, that is very telling of stress.

• Is your dog snatching the treats out of your hand or taking them gently? If your usually gentle dog is eating your fingers along with the treats, they’re telling you they’re feeling agitated.

• Is your dog taking the treat and scanning the environment, or taking the treat and asking for more? If they’re eating the treat but scanning around or walking away, they’re telling you that they’re feeling uncomfortable.

• Will your dog respond to well-known cues or hand signals? If they’re not responding to well-known and quietly spoken cues, they’re telling you that they need help to settle or need to work in a different environment.

If your dog is not feeling safe or calm, you can bet that you’ll see problem behaviours like barking and lunging or not responding to you. It’s critical that you take this as a set of “symptoms” of your dog’s mental state rather than see it as your dog being unmannerly or disobedient. Reading your dog’s emotional state is a critical part of mind reading.

Developing Foresight

What’s the use of mind reading if you don’t use that information to your advantage? Based on body language and knowing Billy is a young and social dog, I suspected that he would take the opportunity to greet the person in the training space. I therefore offered a modified plan for the recall. The owner was able to follow the direction on the next recall, and the dog performed beautifully.

Distance is very important to dogs. If they are bothered or excited by something in the environment, a primary way to diffuse this is to increase the physical distance between the dog and the distraction. And don’t be stingy! In a training session you can also look at what you’re asking of your dog. In Billy’s case, we shortened the distance of the recall and increased the distance from the distraction. You can also positively reinforce with food or toys. The more frequently you reinforce your dog, the more likely they are to work through a distraction. If you’re dealing with behaviour problems, like reactivity, fear, or aggression, I encourage you to seek guidance from a positive reinforcement trainer qualified to work through behaviour problems.

If you notice what your dog notices, read their body language accurately, and see this in the context of your dog’s past behaviour, you’ll be able to modify your training to help your dog succeed. Your dog’s success is your success, and your dog’s failure is your failure. Learning to “mind read” will benefit you both!