BARKS from the Guild May 2018

Page 52


Reading Humans

Angelica Steinker investigates the importance of reading both human and canine body


language for professional behavior consultants anine communication is at the heart of dog bite prevention and behavior consulting. Learning the art and science of reading dog body language is what keeps professionals safe. However, dog behavior consultants focus almost exclusively on dog body language. Recently, I read Joe Navarro’s international bestseller, What Every BODY is Saying, a book that is crammed with immensely interesting information about human body language. Some highlights for me included a human body language friend formula you can use to help establish human reinforcement history, a list of some common friend or foe signals, and some tips for reading specific human body language. Nonverbal communication is a science just like any other. This science deals with the studying of facial expressions, gestures, physical movements, body distance, touching, posture, and even clothing to decipher what people may be thinking, how they may intend to act, and even if something they are saying is true or false. Nonverbal communication is generally considered to be more truthful than verbal. In human nonverbal communication, the body is considered to trump the verbal statements of an individual. This is because of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain that elicits body movements the human displaying the behavior is often not aware of.


Navarro starts his book with 10 tips for reading human body language. I am paraphrasing and applying his statements to dog behavior consulting: 1. Work at observing your clients. Just like with dogs, zoom in and out on body language to attempt to gather context. Make it a habit to scan your human client’s body for body language data. Observing human body language, just like dog body language, becomes easier with experience and practice. 2. Any observation you make is only as good as the context in which it occurs. Context is just as important with human body language as it is with dog body language. 3. Learn to recognize and interpret nonverbal behaviors that are universal. Navarro goes into detail in his book but a good universal “tell” is a lip purse. A lip purse is a flat lip pucker that universally communicates displeasure. If you see your client lip purse after you make a management suggestion, it is likely a very good idea to check in with the client and ask if what you are recommending is realistic for them to implement. 4. Just like dogs, humans have body language that is unique to an individual. Learn what body language is typical for your client. 5. Establish baselines. What is normal body language for that person? If someone always jigs their leg, then leg jigging is not a “tell,” but if the behavior stops it may be an indication of a change in the client’s thinking. Again, asking the client what they think about your comment or suggestion is an ideal response. 6. Try to confirm any findings that you visually locate by looking for multiple behaviors that occur in succession or in clusters. 7. Look for changes. Changes in body language can indicate changes in thoughts, emotions, interest or intent. 8. Try to identify false or misleading nonverbal signals. The classic example is a fake smile. If the muscles around a human’s eyes are not activated, the smile may be fake, but note that Botox is something used by 52

BARKS from the Guild/May 2018

© Can Stock Photo/kyolshin

Dogs may freeze or use distance increasing signals to show their discomfort with a situation, and humans do exactly the same thing

many humans and obviously prevents muscles from being activated! 9. Know how to identify distance increasing and distance decreasing nonverbal behaviors. Just like dogs, people show you what they are thinking via their body language. If you give your client a suggestion and they abruptly lean back in their chair, this may be an important distance increasing clue that your thoughts are being rejected. 10. Finally, work to be subtle when observing your client’s body language. It may be socially awkward and/or damaging to your reinforcement history with your client if they realize you are analyzing their body language.


Another interesting parallel between humans and dogs is freezing. Stressed or frightened humans freeze, just like dogs. Also, people who feel verbally punished will hold very still, i.e. global suppression of behavior, so noticing a child that is abnormally still may be an important clue that a client is lacking in parenting skills, something that may also be affecting the family dog. A client that feels vulnerable may be inclined to stoop their shoulders, clasp their hands in front of their body and lean forward in a turtling motion of self-protection. If your client “turtles,” this can be an important clue that they are uncomfortable with what was just said to them. I find it particularly interesting that the feet are the most profound nonverbal indicator. If your human client’s feet consistently point toward the door instead of toward you, this is probably a very real indication that they want to leave. Conversely, joined feet are referred to as “happy feet” and can be an indication of joy. I enjoy recommending play therapy, i.e. the dog and owner spending time bonding while playing, for my dog behavior clients because it does on occasion get a human client to display happy feet.