How many times have you seen pictures on the internet of pets and people, children in particular, interacting in ways that make you cringe? The toddler riding a dog like a pony; the little boy whose face is pushed up into the face of a dog; the little girls stretching and twisting the legs of a kitten as they attempt to dress it in their doll’s clothes……Some viewers will recognize that the animal is screaming, “Get away from me!” with his body language, but the photographer, and many viewers think it is adorable and sweet.

The danger in encouraging these kinds of interactions is, the animal only has its body language with which to communicate with us. Yes, we can talk to the animals all we want, but do we “hear” what they are saying to us in their language? A dog’s or cat’s bite is most often its last resort after multiple danger signals are offered in the animal’s body language. When all else fails and the critter feels no other option is available, they will very likely hurt us in order to escape the danger/pain.

If we could teach ourselves and others, especially our children, how to translate an animal’s body language, then experts agree there would be far less serious pet-on-human injuries filling up our hospital emergency rooms and urgent care centers. In fact, in the April, 2017 issue of Clinician’s Brief, Emily D. Levine, DVM, DACVB from the Animal Behavior Clinic of Animal Emergency & Referral Associates in Fairfield, NJ, tells the veterinary profession that more needs to be done to prevent dog bites to kids, since children comprise a very large segment of the approximately 4.5 million dog bites occurring each year. And since children’s faces are so much closer to the dogs’ faces than an adult’s, dog bites to children often have devastating consequences.

According to Dr. Levine’s study of adults’ interpretations of canine body language, over 65% of adults misinterpreted clearly exhibited warning signals from canines toward children, when viewing sample videos showing canine-child interactions. In short, the majority of the adults in the study interpreted danger signals from the dogs to mean those dogs were relaxed and confident, when actually, they were fearful and anxious. One of the most commonly misinterpreted canine signals was the wagging tail. According to Dr. Levine, the average adult does not know that a wagging tail does not necessarily mean the dog is happy.

Similar misinterpretations of animal language occur with other companion animals. Cats, horses, reptiles, ferrets….virtually all animals communicate. Since we’re supposed to be the most intelligent species, it’s up to us to learn the language of our pets if we want to live in harmony with them.

There are some good sources out there to help people learn to read and respect animal body language. For instance, you can find articles, webinars, posters, and even a phone app. to help educate your friends and family about the proper way to interpret body language in your canine companion. And teaching animal body language to kids can actually be fun, because it allows them to get a deeper vision into what the other species is thinking and saying to us. After all, there’s a little bit of Dr. Doolittle in all of us, right?

Learning how to communicate with our companion animals is the key to safety and happiness for pets AND people. The internet has a wealth of information on the language of just about any species. Here are some links to get you started: 

The Canine Communication Webinar Series from The ASPCA

Equus Magazine’s Article: How to Read Your Horse’s Body Language

Posters abound on the internet. Do some research and find the poster that best fits your audience:

Here’s a link to a phone app developed by Jill Breitner, an experienced west coast trainer. This app contains more than 60 different canine postures. For each posture there is a breakdown of specific body positions as well as the context in which these positions might be displayed. Available from the App Store or Google Play for $3.99, this app was created in 2015.