Can Canine Body Language Talk Back?
"Off-Label" Applications for Killer Free Stacks
Since we came out with our “Killer Free Stack” video on training puppies for the show ring, a curious thing has happened.
Not only are people messaging us that this training has been transformative for their puppies and adult show dogs, but people are also telling us that they are successfully using free stacking as a technique to work with fearful or apprehensive pet dogs to build their confidence and emotional resilience.
Wow, talk about unintended consequences... how can this be?
There are a lot of reasons this could be happening and I’m not ready to say that free stacking is the new “thing” for sensitive dogs, but here are some thoughts on why we could be seeing this positive effect.
This 16 month old non-show girl was sensitive and shy but her owner wrote to us that the dog found her confidence using Killer Free Stack training. She told us the confidence had spilled into other areas, too - this was the first case that got us thinking….
What Are Leaders Made Of?
This young lady had no trouble finishing her championship but struggled as a special (champion's class) - until her owner taught her to free stack. Within just a few minutes of training, her attitude completely transformed. Two weeks later, she won at a large specialty show. Was there more than “training” going on here?
I have to admit to being a bit of aTED talkjunkie. And when we started getting these messages about people using show stack training to help pet dogs, Amy Cuddy’s TED talkcame to mind. Here are some key points from that talk.
We know from human and primate studies that two key hormones, testosterone and cortisol, differ greatly in “powerful” and “powerless” individuals:
Alpha primates/human leaders have HIGH testosterone and LOW cortisol, and powerless primate/human individuals have LOW testosterone and HIGH cortisol.
Why does this particular relationship between power, testosterone, and cortisol exist?
When you think about power, people tended to think only about testosterone, because that was about dominance*. But really, power is also about how you react to stress. So do you want the high-power leader that's dominant, high on testosterone, but really stress reactive? Probably not, right?
You want the person who's powerful and assertive and dominant, but not very stress reactive, the person who's laid back.
Amy Cuddy - Ted Talk June 2012
*Note: if the word "dominance" sets off alarm bells for you in connection with dogs, let's take it that Cuddy is using the term in the true ethological sense
Power is Spreading
Confident individuals of any species are easily recognized. We may not at first be able to put our finger on what is common and recognizable as power, but we know it when we see it.
The one quality that is shared across the animal kingdom is that confident individuals take up more space.
Two very good photos of the same top winning show dog - but we immediately recognize the second photo as “more powerful.” The head and neck are in the same position in both photos but the rear legs and tail are positioned differently. The dog is standing over more ground in the second photo because her rear legs are positioned further back. The tail extends behind to take possession of even more space - we intuitively read this as more confident and dominant.
Amy Cuddy again:
And what are nonverbal expressions of power and dominance? Well, this is what they are. So in the animal kingdom, they are about expanding. So you make yourself big, you stretch out, you take up space, you're basically opening up. It's about opening up. And this is true across the animal kingdom. It's not just limited to primates.
Amy Cuddy - Ted Talk June 2012
So confident animals stand over more ground, hold their heads higher, etc. And confident animals have higher testosterone and lower stress hormones. All sounds reasonable, but so what?
Leaving Money On The Table
Reading body language in dogs and people has become a fascination bordering on obsession. And most dog trainers have gotten pretty good at using canine body language to infer emotional states of their canine students and keep training sessions “below stress threshold.” But are we leaving the biggest money of all on the table in terms of using body language to benefit our dogs?
Is this 16 month old puppy “owning the ground she stands on” because she’s confident, or is she confident because she’s been taught to own the ground she stands on?
Pretend and Become
This 26 month old bitch struggled with confidence in the breed ring and her owner had difficulty showing her. Once her owner taught her to free stack, she immediately picked up a major win, finished her championship, and earned her first grand championship points in one weekend. The stacking confidence spilled over to the entire show experience.
Cuddy’s studieshave revealed that simply acting confident and powerful can actually make an individual feel confident and powerful. While it is unclear whether this effect is due to actual physical changes or simply emotional feedback, the effect is real. In addition to a general sense of well being, just standing up straight with feet apart and hands on hips for a mere 120 seconds was found to have these profound effects on human test subjects:
- Subjects who assumed a “power pose” had a 20% testosterone increase after two minutes. Subjects who assumed a “low power” pose had a 10% drop in testosterone after two minutes. So there was a 30% spread in testosterone, just based on body position for 120 seconds.
- Subjects who assumed a “power pose” for two minutes had a 25% decrease in cortisol, whereas the “low power” pose subjects had a 15% increase in cortisol after two minutes. Again, just a simple body position held for 120 seconds created a 40% spread in cortisol levels.
So, just by holding a certain pose, a person's confidence and sense of well being could be enhanced, and this has been shown in many subsequent studies, as well. And Cuddy’s research indicates that small changes in body posture can have lasting and life changing effects on everything from career and income to health and happiness. (Please read our note on this research at the end of this article.)
Power of the Ages
Amy Cuddy’s work does catch our attention as sensational (indeed, out of 2300 TED talks, hers is the second most watched). However, the use of body position to regulate hormones, emotions, and physical health is not new. Practitioners of yoga have been enjoying these benefits for millennia. There is an amazing abundance of research which links between the practice of yoga to a laundry list of health benefits, including the following:
- Improved antioxidant levels
- Lowered Cortisols
- Increased Testosterone
- Increased DHEA
- Lowered Stress (Self-Rated)
- Lowered Blood Pressure
- Decreased Heart Rate
People practicing cobra pose
The studies are numerous and the health benefits are wide ranging, but there was one study that stood out for us as interesting as relates to “Power Posing.”
The Zen of Testosterone
A group of trained yoga practitioners were studied to see what effects the “cobra pose” had on their endocrine system (hormones). Blood samples were drawn just before and just after the subjects practiced the “cobra pose” and various hormone levels were measured. Analysis of the blood samples showed that, after practicing cobra pose for 2-3 minutes:
- Cortisol was reduced by an average of 11%
- Testosterone was increased by an average of 16%
Doggy cobra pose?
Why the cobra pose is able to effect these hormonal changes is still unknown. The researchers did find that spine and head position, and the unusual muscular effort to maintain that position, were essential for the results to be reproducible:
Continuing the muscular efforts aimed at maintaining the bend in the thoracolumbar part [ i.e the back ], the subjects lowered their chins until they felt a sharp increase in the pressure along the line of subjective perception of the kidneys on their backs. Continuously increasing tension of the muscles that take part in maintaining the posture is a substantial element of its technique as the essential condition of appropriate reproducibility of the hormonal changes observed in response to this posture.
Minvaleev et al: Postural Influences on the Hormone Level in Healthy Subjects: I. The Cobra Posture and Steroid Hormones.
So, the study indicates that the “magic” position is:
- Chest forward, lifted and rolled over arms, legs out behind
- Back muscles flexed over the spine
- Head up, chin slightly lowered
Back To The Dogs
Let’s think about the ideal free stack for the show ring. The proverbial show dog is most commonly described as
“Owning the ground he stands on." Head high, chest out, ears up, back feet out slightly further behind that is natural for most dogs. Classic doggy "Power Pose."
I know of no study that proves it, but it sure make sense that just training dogs to hold a powerful position could have similar effects to those found in humans.
So maybe it’s time for us to move beyond wondering how dogs are speaking to us with their body language, and start thinking about how that body language is “talking back” to the dogs themselves. It’s very possible that we can influence the physiological makeup of dogs by training them to hold themselves differently, and that could have profound effects on their emotional well being.
Certainly the early anecdotal evidence is there, and, as a dog trainer, I intend to incorporate Killer Free Stacks into more of our “everyday” pet and performance training.
Just One More Thing....
Could it be that there is no “feedback” given to the dog by any particular body position, and the effects we are seeing in dogs taught to free stack are side benefits of learning and problem solving? Is this just a matter of the training itself having a general focusing and calming effect on the dog?
Well yes, and no.
In one stress management study, practicing yoga posture was compared with cognitive behavioral therapy (i.e. training) to see which had the greater impact on stress levels. the study measured self-reported stress levels, heart rate, and stress hormones. The study found that both cognitive behavioral therapy and yoga had significant positive effects in all areas studied. The study also found that the effects of both modes of stress reduction were similar - neither yoga or cognitive behavioral therapy appeared to work better than the other.
So yes, learning and problem solving can confer excellent benefits in terms of stress reduction and increased confidence, but that does not negate the fact that power posing can have benefits in its own right. So why not use both?
I don’t want to start a run on power posing as a “magic bullet” that’s going to fix up every dog with issues. Nothing is going to take the place of a well thought out training program. However, I do think the idea of power posing with dogs could be a useful and novel tool that we can add to our toolkits!
Note: There has been some controversy over the original "Power Pose" study, but, after researching the matter, we agree with Cuddy's position. Many subsequent studies have all confirmed that test subjects who use "power poses" report a sense of powerfulness and well being. The data on the behavioral (risk-taking) and hormonal effects varies from study to study, but the core important findings are consistent and have been repeatedly replicated - power posing makes people feel more confident. Furthermore, the yoga studies (unrelated to Cuddy's study) we found clearly show a link between practicing various body positions and improved hormonal function. While some have argued that the inconsistency of physiological findings based on Cuddy's studies devalue the use of power posing, we agree with Amy Cuddy's assessment that the studies only serve to bolster the value of power posing as there is no disagreement that power posing does, in fact, make people feel more confident.
This article was originally published at puppyculture.com in 2017
Referenced Courses and Titles
About the Author
Jane Messineo Lindquist (Killion) is the director of "Puppy Culture the Powerful First Twelve Weeks That Can Shape Your Puppies' Future" as well as the author of "When Pigs Fly: Training Success With Impossible Dogs" and founder of Madcap University.
Jane has had Bull Terriers since 1982 and she and her husband, Mark Lindquist, breed Bull Terriers under the Madcap kennel name.
Her interests include dog shows, dog agility, gardening, and any cocktail that involves an infused simple syrup.