Listening to your dog means watching their language.
We have been thinking about the all-important topic of canine body language and how much we miss. As verbally-centric creatures, many people have said to me, "Oh, if only my dog could talk!" That got us thinking maybe we need to take a moment to sniff around this hydrant.
They may not use words, but our dogs try and talk to us everyday, in every situation and because we can't HEAR it, we don't take note. But what exactly prevents us from noticing and honoring our dogs needs?
There are times when more importance is placed on the opinions and feelings of other people than our dogs. We want our dogs to be loved not only by us but the people around us. Same goes for our kids, our significant others, our family, and our friends. Humans have a tendency to see the things around them as a reflection of themselves. Owning a dog who growls at the 4 year old who grabs him by the neck or hides from the approaching big guy in glasses seems to be embarrassing. This emotion triggers people to make excuses or even punishing their dog for the behavior. These dogs are just that - dogs. And they come with stuff, too - some genetic, some from past hurts, some from pressures that are being anticipated. As we are throwing our dogs to the wolves, we miss all they are trying to tell us through their body language and vocalizations. Our inability to recognize and take action when the appropriate warning signs occur leaves our best friend without help.
A dog who is repeatedly placed in stressful social interactions resulting in mild warning signs will eventually go up the chain of warnings until they find something that eliminates the threat. If your dog is now pulling his ears back and licking his lips at the sight of an over-exuberant stranger and that doesn't slow the train, he will possibly try a vocalization, or a lip curl, or maybe even a snarl. If that doesn't work or he gets punished, he may then react by biting. And that bite will not "be out of nowhere." It will be because someone failed to recognize his anxiety.
Our Facebook post this morning about how to greet a dog is a great example of how much information dogs give in an effort to get some help and how much we need to learn. It is very important to realize that just because we think a situation is ok and non threatening, does not mean they are perceiving the same. As protectors and caregivers, it is our job to recognize the signs of fear, stress, and discomfort in our dogs and keep them safe, comfortable and successful. That means managing difficult situations. That means saying no to people who do not want to greet your dog correctly. Or asking that Mom not to let their child run up to you and your companion. It also may mean seeking out force-free behavioral support if you would like them to feel better about the things that scare them.
We as trainers have learned how to draw on metaphors for people to empathize with their pets. Being in stressful greeting situations would be in line with you being at a party among a bunch of odd strangers. Then having one of them run up, put his hands all over you, rub your head and speak to you in a foreign language. And after saying, "Stop!" they continue. Not sure about you, but biting would be on the top of my list.
If you happen to be one of the very lucky people who truly owns an incredible pup with the social IQ of a canine Einstein, we could not be happier for you and your dog. Greet away and enjoy every joyous minute. I have been blessed with owning a dog like that and it was certainly heaven. For those of us, myself now included, who own dogs that fall into the category of "Hey, I need a minute," the best advice we can give is to be aware, learn as much as you can, manage where it is necessary, train positively when it is possible to train, get help if it's required, and most of all accept your dogs the way they accept you - unconditionally.
Please stay tuned for our follow-up posting about all of the positive body language we miss and how that triggers unwanted behaviors. That's going to be a good one!