Reading your dog is a matter of interpreting head position, ear movement and other unspoken indicators.Have you ever wished your dog could talk? What we do not stop and realize is that our dogs talk to us all the time. They talk to us through the little indicators they give us. As handlers and trainers, it is very important for us to learn our dog’s indicators. These indicators can often make the difference between success and failure.

When we were younger we went to school to learn how to read, write, and do math. As dog handlers we learn a lot of different things, but seldom do we slow down and learn how to read our dogs. The purpose of this article is to share the importance of learning how to read our dogs.

As I sit in conferences and listen to instructors from all over the country and the world I hear them mention something about “reading the dog.” However, I have yet to sit in a class and actually be taught how to read the dog. How does this happen?

The ability to read a dog comes through careful and consistent training designed to help the handler learn to look for certain characteristics in his dog. If we fail to train handlers to read their dogs, then we train them to fail rather than to succeed. The first step in this training is to share what the indicators are and to explain how they can be pronounced or slight in nature.

What Are Some Indicators?

A dog has several indicators for us and each dog has his own way of communicating. These signals are often missed — and in some cases so is the dope, the suspect, or worse yet, the explosive. The list is not all-inclusive. I believe there are indicators in dogs that I have never seen because they are as unique as each dog.

Let’s start with the one indicator most everyone has seen, the “head turn.” Those who have never seen this indicator have a more serious problem than learning how to read their dog. The head turn occurs when the dog goes through odor and he has a hard time getting his body to follow his head. In most cases this is very pronounced, but at times the head turn may be subtle. In those cases, the handler must be paying very close attention to the dog. If the handler is not paying attention, the result may be that something or someone important is missed.

The next indicator is breathing. A breathing change tells you that the dog perceives a change in his environment. The breathing change is something most every dog will exhibit. The sound may be slight in tone, but it will change. The change results from a dog shifting from nose breathing to more mouth breathing, allowing the air exchange to take place in the vomeronasal organ. This is located in the roof of the dog’s mouth and the passages are usually narrower. Thus the change in the sound of his breathing occurs as the scent passes through the dog’s olfactory system. In some cases, you may even hear the dog shifting his breathing back and forth. The scent is smelled with the nose and tasted with the mouth. You hear it on searches of all kinds as the dog zeroes in on the source of the odor.

Close Attention Required

The indicators now shift from the obvious to the less obvious. The dog’s tail can also be an indicator. We had a dog at training one day doing simple tracking exercises. When I say simple, I mean the handler and I knew the path of the track and the exercise was set up to help the handler learn to read the dog’s indicators.

A wag of the tail, or tucking it between their legs, can also be an indicator for your dog.This dog had obvious indicators for tracking. When the dog was on the track, his tail was wagging from one side to the other at a very rapid pace. The moment the dog lost the track, his tail would stop. Often, the dog’s tail would stop, but he would not stop moving for another four to five yards. This helped the handler tremendously when it came to success rates on the street.

The tail change is not always a wag. It can be the tail stuck up between the dog’s rear legs, or sticking straight in the air. The point here is to give yourself the opportunity to learn what behavior change is taking place. The tail is just one place where a change may occur.

The ears are another place to watch for change. The ears go up, back, side to side, and down. Recently I was judging a K-9 competition in Tahoe, CA. I watched as a handler downed his dog during the obedience phase. The dog was very flat to the ground as the handler stood next to him and downed him. The dog’s ears were back and flat to his head. As the handler left the dog and walked away, I noticed that the dog’s head started to come up and his ears became erect. This told me something about the dog and his training; the dog became more comfortable as the handler moved away.  This is an obvious example of how the ears can tell us something about the dog, or the dog can tell us something about what he is experiencing.

Pay attention to the ears of your dog. Those ears can hear four times more sounds than human ears can. They can detect sounds in six hundredths of a second. Your dog’s ears may be trying to alert you to something you cannot see or hear. That could save your life, or the life of someone else.

The next thing we should watch is the dog’s cadence. The dog will take off at a trot, but may suddenly shift to a turn and a stiff, erect walk. The cadence change is not as profound as some of the other indicators, but it is there and can be very obvious in certain situations. One of those is tracking, where the cadence or pull of the dog can be a real storyteller. I have done hundreds of tracks, both while working a dog and training a dog. The dog’s pull and change of cadence can tell you a variety of things. This again is something you need to work in training and determine just what the dog is trying to say. Again, it comes down to reading your dog and being successful.

Ways We Learn to Read

When doing a building search, put a blindfold on the handler. As you are standing with the handler, have him/her tell you when there is a change in the dog’s breathing. This usually has to take place in a building that has long, narrow hallways. After doing this exercise a few times, the handler will start to become very good at reading the dog’s breathing change. The handler will start to hear that change take place several rooms away.

Another way to learn this is with video recordings of tracking and searching. I have used video numerous times and each time I do, I learn something about the dog I am training. The handlers also learn things: they see the ears change position or the tail wag. They notice the cadence change as the dog gets lower to the ground, or is more erect than he was just moments before.

The last idea I would like to share is much like the blindfold, and that is for the handler wear earplugs or sound-dampening headphones. This time the eyes can see, but the ears cannot hear. If you take away one of our senses, we become more efficient with what we have left. This allows you, the handler, to watch your dog more closely, because you cannot hear the dog. You will pick up things in your dog’s body language that you had not previously noticed and before you know it, you will be reading your dog.

My hope is that this article will help handlers learn more about their dogs. It might make a difference in the success they have with their canine partners. Our dogs can only perform as well as we can read and understand them.

Authored by: Ron Cloward
Photo credit: cynoclub / 123RF Stock Photo and It’sGreg / Foter / CC BY-ND
Police K-9 Magazine is a contributor to This article was republished with permission, courtesy of Jeff Meyer.

Ron Cloward is a lieutenant with the Modesto (CA) Police Department. He has been a police officer for 25 years and a handler/trainer for 22 years, and is responsible for a 14-dog unit including two sergeants. He also is president of the Western States Police Canine Association.




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