The I Speak Dog campaign week just wrapped up, and professionals all over the world are thrilled about this new website, ispeakdog.org. Why do we feel this website is so critical for dog guardians?
Dogs are constantly communicating with each other and with people. The problem is, most people don't understand dog language. So whatever the dog is attempting to communicate gets lost in translation.
Dogs can't use words, instead they use body language and vocalization, like barking and growling.
A growl can mean a multitude of things, but many people are immediately offended by a dog's growl. Why is that? Why do owners take it so personally when their dog growls at them? It might be because we've been told over and over that dogs are attempting to take over the household, be the leader or top dog, and a dog growling at us is showing that he feels he's the one in charge and we need to show him who's boss. Or maybe, people just don't know very much about dogs. In fact, dogs growl when they're scared, to tell something to back off (I don't want to bite you, so please go away), dogs also growl when they play.
Growling is just a form of dog communication, not something that signals a dog is planning world domination, or to eat us in our sleep.
If a dog growls at me (not during play), I say, "thank you!" and I back off. The dog was simply communicating that he was not comfortable with the situation. How rude would it be of me to continue with what I was doing and expect the dog to get over it? The dog most likely will not "get over it" AND he learned that I don't listen to his very clear warning signal. What do you think would happen next? The dog might think, "She didn't get it when I asked her nicely to stop, I'm still not happy with this situation, I guess I just need to skip the warning and go for the bite."
People are regularly misreading their dogs, and missing important signals. I worked with a little dog who tensed up and air snapped at just about every person (other than mom) who had reached to pet him. Eventually, he had to go for the bite, as his warning signals were not enough. For some reason, we expect dogs to accept all things people do to them, so a dog air snapping when we try to pet him is considered completely inappropriate to humans.
A dog air snapping at people is not being rude, naughty, or dominant. Most likely, they're scared and feeling threatened. When we don't understand what our dogs are saying, we may end up with a tragic situation; a shut down dog, a bitten friend, or worse.
Air snapping is a bit more obvious than a dog turning away or lip licking, so imagine how often those subtle signs get ignored/missed!
This post isn't just about growling or air snapping (both perfectly appropriate ways for dogs to communicate, and neither action should be punished). There are very subtle signs that people miss before a dog gets to that point. Here's a graph I send to many of my clients. I did not make it, but I love it! This doesn't mean every dog will work their way through all the steps, but these are ways your dog tells other dogs and YOU that they are not comfortable. A bite rarely happens out of the blue. It's more likely that the dog attempted to warn the person with one of these subtle signs, and had to resort to biting when they were pushed.
Let's take a look at Nico. Without going into all the specifics, Nico is a dog with some serious anxiety. Take a look at this video of Nico in his own driveway:
Does he look happy or scared? Is he being stubborn by refusing to leave the driveway? It's always easier to read a dog's body language when you have a baseline. So watch this video:
In this video, Nico is in his house and about to do some bag training, something I've made sure he loves. Can you see a difference?
--When Nico is happy and comfortable, his whole body is loose and wiggly, his ears are neutral/forward, his tail is up and wagging, and he's bouncing around.
--When Nico is uncomfortable and afraid, his body is tense, his tail is low, sometimes almost tucked, his movement is slow and stiff, his ears are back, he's hyper-vigilant, his brow is furrowed (worried).
The dog in the first video is not comfortable, happy, relaxed, or "fine." He should not be forced to walk down the street to show him there's nothing to be afraid of. Fear is not rational, so although it seems silly to us for him to be afraid here, it's very real to him, and we should treat it as real fear.
Dogs use their body language and vocalization to communicate fear, worry, joy, play, and more. It's so important to learn how to understand them so we can have the best relationship with them, and provide them with the best quality of life we can.
Don't be fooled by individuals telling you to interpret your dog's behavior as "dominant," "stubborn," "spiteful," etc. Look at what the dog is actually doing, which will tell you a lot more! Is your dog pulling on leash with a loose body, open mouth, and a bounce in his step? He's probably not trying to be the alpha/leader, he's probably pumped about his walk and wants to sniff everything (go ahead, let him!).
How can you learn to speak dog? This totally free resource will be your saving grace! ispeakdog.org just launched and is going to have you speaking fluent dog in no time!
This is my contribution to I Speak Dog week. Check out the site for more blogs about body language.