dog body language

Is it possible for a dog to be reactive to the unexpected?

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I had a great question recently:

“Is it possible for a dog to be reactive to quiet and ‘the unexpected’?”

The person who posed this question was puzzled that their dog seemed able to cope with busy or noisy situations, but would react violently to any sight or sound when the environment was otherwise empty or quiet. The owner was worried that his dog may be unusual or wrong in some way.

As I answered, it became clear that quite a few owners of reactive dogs are puzzled by this. So I’m giving you my answer as it may answer a question that you have too!


This is a good question! It baffles and misleads a lot of people.  

Picture this: you are visiting your local shops. It’s afternoon, the shops are busy, there are mothers with pushchairs, delivery vans, people with shopping bags, boys on bikes … How do you feel?

Absolutely fine and comfortable, I’d bet.

Now imagine you go there at 1 in the morning. The place is deserted. You hear footsteps getting louder, and peering into the gloom you can just make out a figure heading towards you. How do you feel?

Most of us would be on high alert at the very least, possibly really alarmed.

The same man ambling through the crowds in the afternoon probably wouldn’t have bothered you at all.

There is a technical name for this - it’s SEC or Sudden Environmental Change.

Dogs are designed to spot things which are different, things which shouldn’t be there. They can single out something amiss and focus intently on it. This is one reason why they have earned their place in our homes down the ages. They are alarm sensors!

So your dog is behaving absolutely normally.


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Sudden Environmental Change? Wha’?

There is a reason so many of our working dogs are so useful in their work. Take German Shepherds for instance, who can spot an intruder or an escaping criminal in a split-second, and take action.

Border Collies, those wonderful sheep-herders, can instantly spot a ewe whose ear is twitching in the wrong direction, indicating that she’s about to break and take the flock with her. The Collie can get round in an instant to block the ewe and make sure she keeps going in the right direction.

In the image at the top of the page, young Coco Poodle just has to check out this strange sign in an otherwise green and empty landscape.

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Sighthounds can spot the tiniest movement in a still place at a huge distance. Something moving in the landscape could well be dinner!

Dogs searching for evidence may not have a specific scent or object in mind - they’re just looking for something that shouldn’t be there.

And this is why your dog may react dramatically to the doorbell, or a car door slamming outside your home.




For this ability alone, dogs have earnt their place by our fireplaces for so many thousands of years - it’s about 30,000 years, in fact.

Dogs’ gifts

The fact is that the hearing and sight capabilities of the dog so far outweigh our own. When it comes to their noses, they are unparalleled, and are the reason dogs are an important tool for the police, and in airports and ports worldwide. They’re far quicker at discovering evidence and identifying contraband than much of the sophisticated machinery also in use!

Is it possible for a dog to be reactive to quiet?

My dog won’t take no for an answer

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“My dog has many good points but does not take no for an answer and is very disobedient when he appears to be totally deaf.”

So wrote a reader of her “challenging” dog.

Well, I’m glad the poor dog’s owner recognises he has good points! But the rest of her statement means that she doesn’t understand her dog or his motivation one bit.

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Disobedient. The dictionary tells us this means “refusing to obey rules or someone in authority”. Now if you’re to obey rules, you have to know what those rules are. And I’m willing to bet this dog has NO idea what the rules are that he’s meant to “obey”!

A common misconception

There seems to be an extraordinary misunderstanding rife amongst dog-owners. They think their dog arrives pre-programmed with English (or Spanish, or Turkish, or whatever they speak themselves). They think that the dog will have a perfect understanding of the meaning of words enunciated loudly and with clarity. So “SIT!” should immediately have the dog sitting.

Furthermore, they think that all their physical expressions and vocal tones will be instantly understood. So “NOOOOOO!” said in a menacing way with finger wagging will clearly mean “Take your paws off the table and go to your basket.”

How is your non-verbal, non-human, dog meant to know this?

Teach first

In the first place, your dog needs to be taught what it is that’s wanted - not left to guess, take pot-luck and hope he gets it right.

You have to give the dog information about what it is you want, not just what you don’t want.

Think of a toddler in your home. You’d be showing her what you wanted, kindly and patiently, naming objects and actions in that motherly chatty way that comes naturally to loving parents. Requests would come as suggestions, (Do you think your teddy bear would like to have tea now?) You wouldn’t bark orders at her! You wouldn’t expect her to understand language before she is verbal herself!

You may treat your dog the exact same way. And it’ll help if you think of how you get your wishes known and followed with your human family.

Cues not commands

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Do you order, or “command” your partner or family?

Or do you perhaps ask them?

Perhaps you drop hints, without even saying anything at all! For instance, you may come home exhausted and throw yourself into an armchair. A sensitive family member may say “I’ll put the shopping away for you - would you like a cup of tea?” Or even, “You make us a cup of tea and I’ll deal with all these groceries.”

We give and take. We assess a person’s mood and act accordingly. We adapt our requirements to the situation. We are kind and patient (if we want to keep the peace!).

In enlightened dog training, we call these communications - not “commands” but “cues”. They can be vocal cues (“Would you like to sit?”), or they could be environmental cues (I’m holding your lead - if you want me to put it on you for a walk you need to sit). And no, they don’t understand every word - neither does your toddler. But they can get the drift.

So if you take the word “command” right out of your vocabulary you may find that straight away you get on better with your dog. Really!

You have asked your dog to Sit and she doesn’t. Instead of shouting SIT ever louder and more urgently, you may ask yourself why she doesn’t sit:

• Is it because she’s in pain?

• Is it because the floor is slippery so she’s unable to prop herself up?

• Is it because it’s wet and muddy and she’s a comfort-lover? (My whippet wouldn’t dream of sitting on wet grass - and I’d never ask her to!)

• Is it because she’s distracted by the dog over the road/the postman/children screaming/the shopping bags on the floor/[insert your dog’s fear or fancy here]?

• … or is it perhaps because you never taught her?

“Disobedient” and other such words

The dictionary gives us related words for disobedient:

unruly, wayward, errant, disorderly, delinquent, disruptive, troublesome, rebellious, defiant, mutinous, recalcitrant, uncooperative, non-compliant, wilful, unbiddable, intractable, obstreperous, awkward, difficult, perverse, contrary, naughty, mischievous …

I’ve heard almost all of those words applied to a dog’s behaviour by a frustrated and thwarted owner! Often it’s new dog-owners talking about their first puppy. They clearly are labouring under the misapprehension I outlined above, and are expecting miraculous perception from this baby of another species.

Usually I suggest they substitute the word they’ve used (often stubborn, difficult, disobedient) with a word which better fits the situation: try fearful, shy, overexcited, hungry, overtired … perhaps the sort of words you may use to describe that little toddler who is not doing what you’d like.

We all have reasons for doing things

Of one thing you may be sure - dogs don’t do things for no reason.

You may not be able to see or understand the reason - but there is a reason! And as we’re meant to be the ones with the bigger brains, and we chose to have this dog live with us, it’s up to us to work out what that reason is.

You’ll find some study of Dog Body Language will repay you well (see Resources below). Your dog will heave a huge sigh of relief when at last you seem to understand his clear messages! And no, they’re not obvious to most of us dumb humans till they’re explained to us.

Once you know whether your dog is just distracted or - perhaps - afraid, you’ll be able to deal accordingly with the situation. Keep in mind that you cannot train an emotion-based behaviour out of a dog. They’re not operating on a rational basis at that moment, any more than your shrieking toddler who wants something she can’t get.

So, as I replied to the reader I quoted at the top of this piece, assess the situation carefully before you apportion blame. Your dog needs your help and understanding, not condemnation.

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Just like us, dogs never do anything for no reason

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One of Lacy’s cute things is to wham her face between our knees and keep it there for a while as we stroke her ears and whisper sweet nothings to her. (This is not to be confused with crotch-sniffing, which she doesn’t do.)

We call it “Wigwam” (it just seemed to describe it well).

I know that she’s doing this to get reassurance. She needs to feel that we are her people, her protectors. She’s anxious by nature, and you can hear her sigh and see her whole body relax as she wigwams.

But it took me a while to make the connection which explains why she does it.

It’s the muzzle-grab

The muzzle-grab is what an older dog may do to a younger one, perhaps a puppy who is getting out of hand. They open their mouth wide, and wrap it right round the pup’s muzzle to keep it shut. The teeth are covered - it’s not intended as a bite. It’s a very clear way of saying “Keep your mouth shut near me,” is painless, and effective. 

Get the lowdown on why your reactive dog does what he does, and how to start a major change!


They can also do this in play to a close companion (one living in the same house, usually). A dog who doesn’t enjoy these privileges will get a real snap or face-down. It’s a reprimand for the family, just as we have things we may say only to family members. (In my family growing up, “FLO” - when we had visitors - meant “Family lay off” or “Stop eating all the cakes!”) 

Those hippo jaws that dogs play with are a precursor to a muzzle-grab, if they can get in the right position.

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But here’s the key: sometimes a dog will solicit a muzzle-grab from an older dog or a companion. This is to be reassured that they are still part of the group, meriting the kind of action normally directed to a puppy. They are loved and cherished, in other words. They feel they belong. 

It’s a bit like a cat purring to provoke affection, or a puppy nuzzling a hand for pets. 

And this is what Lacy is doing to us. She is provoking a muzzle-grab by pushing her head between our knees. She is putting herself in this vulnerable position - her eyes covered, her head trapped - to seek that feeling we all need to experience regularly. To feel loved and protected.

I knew what Lacy was doing. It satisfies my curiosity to know why.

Dog Body Language

This is just a glimpse into the complex and sophisticated body language dogs employ. We - especially the British with our history of empire - tend to expect everyone else to learn our language. If they don’t get it the first time, we shout at them! And this is how many people treat their dogs.

They assume because their dog doesn’t understand their words she’s being deliberately obtuse, stubborn - or just plain stupid. This is so unjust!

If we can just take the time to learn our dogs’ sensitive body language, not only do we have a new way of communicating with them, but SO MANY misunderstandings will be avoided! It’s not difficult to observe and note what our dog is saying to us. But many dog-owners have no idea. They just don't see it. They prefer to act the sergeant-major and shout at their dog.

Understanding your reactive - growly - dog

It’s especially important to be able to understand your dog if she has reactive tendencies - fearful, anxious, shy, aggressive - a Growly Dog in short. Once you can understand how your dog actually feels in a situation, it makes it so much easier to get a good outcome. This is definitely not a time for yelling ever louder at your “thick” dog!

This is something I go into in great detail in my course for reactive dogs: From Growly Dog to Confident Dog, and which brings lots of “Aha!” moments to students, who begin to see a way forward, at long last. 

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Go and check out the course, read the students' success stories, and think how this could change life for you and your tricky dog. Following the feedback from the present students, the course has been updated and now has everything asked for.

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“He Understands Everything I Say!” 6 Pointers to Better Communication


Our vision of the speaker is a fluffy old lady cuddling her equally fluffy old dog. We smirk as she says this - what a lot of nonsense!

But wait! Maybe not so nonsensical!

Recent research has shown that not only do dogs process speech in a similar way to the way we process speech, but they also process emotions in those sounds - just as we do. Their brains are actually wired for sounds the same way ours are - pointing to our common ancestry over 100 million years ago. Add that we have been sharing our lives with each other for the last 18 - 32,000 years and we’ve kinda got used to each other. 

Do you want to bark at your dog?

Many people think that to communicate with their dogs they have to give sharp, abrupt “commands”, eliciting instant compliance. They have been misled by waves of tv personalities who have encouraged this dysfunctional, one-sided, relationship.

While clarity is important to avoid confusion, switching to the sort of conversation we have with our friends and families - especially what we do with as yet non-verbal small children - actually conveys more information to your dog. 

"Dogs and humans share a similar social environment," says Attila Andics of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary. "Our findings suggest that they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species." 1

If I’ve asked my dog to lie down, and after a while he forgets and moves off, rather than yell DOWN at him, I ask him in a quiet inquisitive voice, “What were you meant to be doing?” My dog pauses for a moment, processes both what he’s heard and the way it was said, and returns to lying down.

“The results do indicate that they don’t just pay attention to who is speaking and their tone of voice – they also, to some extent, hear the words we say.” says Victoria Ratcliffe, Doctoral candidate in Psychology at the University of Sussex. “So even if he doesn’t always respond, he is listening.” 2

We don’t yell single-syllable commands at people the same way we think we’re meant to yell at our dogs. We don’t say to our visitor, “Come in. I said Come in. Come IN! Get through that door NOW!” We focus on making the other person feel comfortable - and may smile, say “Come in,” make a welcoming gesture with our arm, perhaps make a whole body movement while we stand aside for them. It is the entirety of our communication that conveys information to our visitor. Standing rigid while barking abrupt commands would leave your guest confused and alarmed.

Good force-free trainers (not to mention millions of devoted dog-owners) know that speaking to your dog as a person is not only effective at getting your message across, but does it in a way that enhances your relationship while keeping your blood pressure down!

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What do I do?

Here are a few steps you can take to change your approach to communicating with your dog.

1. Are you sure he knows what you mean?

Does your dog actually know what SIT means? People often expect their dog to arrive with a load of behaviours installed. Remember that when your new pup arrives, you are getting Dog 1.0 - the basic version, not the pre-programmed one. You have to provide all the add-ons and upgrades!

2. Pair your sound with his action.

The quickest way to teach a dog a word is to pair that word with his action. So you say SIT quietly while his bottom is going to the floor. You are labelling that movement as “sit”. Keep repeating this whenever he sits till he gets it, and you can say SIT and he’ll sit straight away. No need for wagging fingers or menacing body language. Just a soft voice will do.

3. Now you can sound like a human being and not a robot.

Once he’s got this, you can ask him to sit in a pleasant friendly way: “Would you sit over there?” “Sit down now, there’s a good boy.” “Come and sit beside me.” will now all work. I’m not saying he understands every word you are saying, of course, but he will certainly understand the gist and the underlying emotion. He may need to try a couple of things to see if that’s what you want. He may lie down instead of sitting. That’s ok - you’re not in an obedience competition.

4. Zip it!

Say it once, then zip it! Don’t rabbit on, repeating yourself. So if your dog is distracted when you ask him to sit, you don’t need to escalate your “sit, SIT, SIT!” and show frustration. Try a quiet “Did I ask you to sit?” or “What do you think you should do now?” It may amaze you, but you will most likely get a thoughtful response from your dog. Don’t forget to reward him warmly when he obliges!

5. Watch the Children.

Children can undermine your training by endlessly repeating your dog’s name. They like to roll words around in their mouths like fine wine and move into a sing-song litany. They may be “fighting” each other for the pup’s attention, or they may just have slipped into a habit of calling the dog without following through. Fran was continually calling her puppy’s name on one of our Puppy Walks, then ignoring the dog and wandering off. So I called her over and said “Fran,” “Fran,” “FRAN,” “Fran-NEE,” “Fran?” She grumpily said “What?!” It took her very little time to get annoyed and impatient with me, which demonstrated nicely what she was putting her dog through. She was expertly teaching him to ignore not only his name, but anything else she said!

6. Conflicting information.

Evidence that dogs take in the whole picture and not just an isolated sound is that if you make a sound and a signal simultaneously your dog will tend to miss the sound completely and follow the signal. As a non-verbal species dogs have a sophisticated body language to communicate with each other, so when there’s a conflict of information they will tend to choose what they see over what they hear. Hence in no.2 above, focus on the sound and don’t add extraneous body signals. If you always bend over or look like the Statue of Liberty when you say “sit”, your dog is going to be mightily puzzled when you say “sit” without your accompanying movements. You can always add hand signals later if you need them.

Was the Fluffy Old Lady Right?

You may not want to be a fluffy old lady or have a fluffy old dog, but at least that lady and her dog are happy and content with each other!  

Nobody wants to live in a war zone, and not many wish to live in a military bootcamp. More and more countries round the world are declaring dogs and other animals to be sentient beings, not property, and their laws are being changed accordingly. This is a huge advance for our so-called “civilised society”. (Here in the UK, dogs are still possessions, like a chair, or a teapot.)

Cast off the shackles of what some tv “trainers” have advocated, and behave like a friend to your dog, not a prison guard. 


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1. Attila Andics, Márta Gácsi, Tamás Faragó, Anna Kis, Ádám Miklósi. Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI. Current Biology, February 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.01.058

2. Victoria F. Ratcliffe, David Reby. Orienting Asymmetries in Dogs’ Responses to Different Communicatory Components of Human Speech. Current Biology, November 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.10.030

My dog understands everything I say

Why is my dog a nightmare on lead when he's fine off lead?

This is a question that perplexes many dog-owners. Their dog is no trouble when off-lead, but he turns into a snarling hoodlum when on-lead.

There are a number of things happening here. Your dog isn’t actually a Jekyll and Hyde, rather he’s able to cope in one situation, but not in the other.

Sadly it’s often us who make the situation far, far worse! Although I know that’s the last thing we intend to happen.

So let’s have a look at what’s going on

1. Off-lead, your dog is able to come across other dogs - maybe even interact with them - without any trouble kicking off. If you watch what’s going on very carefully, you may see that your dog is displaying some excellent social skills. Because he’s not restrained on a lead, his body movement untrammelled, he can display body language appropriate to the occasion. If you video some of these passages or interactions you may see a host of calming signals being employed - perhaps by all the dogs involved.

This could include:

  • soft body posture

  • approaching indirectly

  • looking away

  • sniffing the ground

  • turning his body away

  • moving with loose-limbed movement and wavy tail

All those things are telling the other dog they’re no threat. When free to move away, your dog may even decide on a nose-sniff and a bum-sniff before moving on.

On the other hand, careful observation may reveal that your dog is actually anxious:

  • trying to get away

  • or frozen to the spot

  • licking lips

  • yawning

  • stiff and slow in movement

  • tiptoeing round the other dog

  • tail tucked or stiff

He may not be as “fine” as you think!

But it’s when we get into the picture that things can really start to go wrong!

2. On-lead, things can be very different. Because you are used to your dog getting upset when he sees or meets other dogs on the road, you are highly likely to tense up as soon as you see another dog. This lead-tightening tells your dog that you’re worried and that something dangerous is coming. He goes onto full alert and starts to square up to the impending danger. On his toes and ready to defend himself, he’s likely to start barking, bouncing, and lunging at the oncoming dog, in an effort to scare it away. Because the lead is tight, he’s unable to employ any of his natural body language skills and issue calming signals to the other dog.

And because these dogs are being forced to walk straight towards each other, with no chance to pause, look away, sniff the ground - or any of those other signals that work so well when left to their own devices - they become helpless to improve the situation.

What to do?

Now, if your dog is unpredictable and just as likely to start trouble off and on-lead, this doesn’t apply to you! This is for those whose dog has had only good interactions with others when off-lead.

  1. Acknowledge that your dog can handle things well when you don’t try to influence proceedings.

  2. Stop interfering!

How to stop interfering? Look back at what happens when you see the other dog coming. It’s probably you who tenses up first, winds the lead round your fist, pulls your dog in close, starts barking commands at him. So it’s you that needs to change things.

For your dog to change, YOU need to change.

If you can ensure that whenever you see a dog coming, the first thing you do is to relax your hands, keep the lead slack, and breathe normally - you may be very surprised at how calmly your dog behaves!

Stop it before it starts

I have often seen a barking and lunging incident snuffed out before it began - simply by the owner relaxing their hands on the lead and not reacting.

To begin with, this may take a superhuman effort on your part! It’s hard to change habits we’ve developed - especially if we don’t even know we have them!

But if you can rehearse the scene in your mind - perhaps take one which happened to you today or yesterday, and run through it in your mind - you can see exactly where you need to change something you’re doing.

Once you’ve cracked this, and you know exactly what to do and when, you’ll develop a new habit. And happily, good habits are also hard to break!

Dog Body Language? Whatever is this?

Hopefully this has piqued your interest in finding out more about how your dog communicates. I’ll come back with some more on this in a while. For now, become a student of your dog: each little twitch, blink, or sniff means something. And for more learning, get our free Growly Dog e-course here.

He’s telling us! It’s up to us to learn how to interpret what he’s saying, with empathy, and without pre-conceptions.


Why is my dog a barking, lunging nightmare?