May 18, 2014 – By Kris Butler – Specific behaviors that relate to canine communication and social space were described in Part 1 of this article. Here in Part 2 we’ll discuss why this information is so important to our relationships with our dogs.
It’s up to the human(s) within a dog’s family to advocate for the dog by interpreting and responding to the dog’s important communiqués. A person’s good intentions are not as important as how the dog is signaling s/he feels in the moment.
Understanding canine communication requires careful observation and objectivity. Being your dog’s best advocate requires the capacity to relate to your dog’s perception of what humans might seem to be communicating to the dog. When people learn to interpret their dog’s signaling within the context of the dog’s interactions, they are then able to identify the dog’s shifts in comfort levels and act according to the dog’s needs before behaviors escalate.
Dogs are social animals and they are “space” oriented by nature. Note that the dog in charge of a multi-dog household is the one that controls which dogs are allowed to be where and when they are allowed to be there. This behavior applies to one-dog families as well. If humans don’t project a sense of control, many (not all) dogs are more than willing to step up and assume ownership of the space around them. People who have had dogs enrolled in American Dog Obedience Center’s boarding school program have likely heard me crunch our training philosophy down to this one statement: Control the dog’s space and its movement through that space, and you control the dog.
Ours is a subtle approach to teaching dogs to yield control of their space to their human(s). We accomplish this by requiring dogs to:
- Stay on their magic carpets (restricting movement through their space)
- Come when called (move through space to a person, regardless where the dog would rather be)
- Wait at thresholds (obtain permission before moving into valuable space)
- Sit for greetings (not jump into a person’s intimate space or fuss with other dogs while in a human’s personal space)
- Keep a leash slack (move where their human is walking, regardless where the dog would rather be, when on leash)
Because of effective training, our clients’ dogs are generally more apt to be welcome to interact with family members and their extended social circles, both inside the home and away from home. Being able to control the dog in social settings does not mean, however, that every dog will be comfortable interacting with every person in every situation. Nor is it your obligation to require your dog to do so.
Consider how limited a trained dog’s options are when the dog is on its magic carpet in the house or walking outdoors on a leash. It is easy enough for most people to believe that cornered or trapped dogs might react strongly out of fear, but people often don’t recognize that trained dogs might perceive that they are trapped any time leaving is not an option for them. If their more subtle communication is ignored, the perception of being trapped while sensing encroachment leaves fearful dogs few options other than expressing, “Move away!”
During their going-home lessons, we suggest to our human clients that unfamiliar people should be discouraged from interacting with dogs that have been placed on their magic carpets. We suggest that everybody use the signals their dogs offer quite freely to determine whether their dogs actually enjoy being touched by unfamiliar people. If not, families can develop polite ways to discourage “strangers” who want to physically interact with the dog.
People hug each other during greetings as signs of affection. Dogs do not; yet few people seem to know this. For a dog, to extend front legs or chest over another dog’s shoulders is usually an act of domination. From the dog’s perspective, hugs can place unfamiliar people in threatening or dominating positions; yet people, especially children, are often encouraged to hug dogs.
As you observe your dog’s reactions to interactions with people, be aware of the context of his behaviors. Is he yawning because he’s tired? Then it’s probably just a yawn. Is he wide awake and excited, yet yawning? Perhaps stress is requiring him to take in more air. Beyond her immediate human family members, do you think your girly dog really enjoys having people she’s never met rub her most vulnerable tummy parts? Might she be rolling over to sublimate herself because current interactions intimidate her to that degree? Is your dog really looking at something over yonder? He could be. Or might he be turning his head away to actively avoid dealing with something or someone in the environment? All of these scenarios are possible but, taken in the context of what is happening moment-to-moment, might you consider your dog’s perspective differently?
People seem better able to recognize those hyper-active canine behaviors that relate to stress than they are able to recognize those stress-related symptoms that indicate a dog is shutting down or freezing. Families sometimes remark that their dogs are “so much more laid back” or “so much calmer” when their dogs are with them away from home. The key word is “more,” denoting a change from the norm. Because stressful behaviors that relate to shutting down are actually beneficial to human interactions (calmer, quieter), it is easy for uninformed people to overlook what is really happening to their dogs. The key remains to always consider the dog’s behaviors within the context of the interactions.
Stress is a fact of life for people and dogs alike. By identifying and recognizing canine stress symptoms and social communication signals, people can avoid blaming their dogs for what might otherwise seem like willfully disobedient behavior. Over time, if corrected consistently, dogs learn to stop communicating their concerns and fears. Their observable indicators disappear but their masked discomfort remains, making these dogs’ future behavior much harder to predict.
At American Dog Obedience Center, each lesson (and there are several outings each day) is based on input we receive moment-to-moment from the dog. We practice (human) behaviors such as standing at dogs’ sides to “dress” them and maintaining mostly indirect eye contact as we interact with them. It might surprise you to read, we do not “pet” some dogs for the first few days they are here because, initially, some dogs indicate they do not enjoy our touch. We want each dog to become comfortable and confident as possible so that a high degree of learning can occur. It is crucial that families select dog trainers and instructors who know this! Make no assumptions; many do not.
I wish I could link you to software that would facilitate your learning the language of “Dog” but, so far, there is none. I have read that children under the age of six do not have to learn new languages so much as they acquire them. I think that is how people learn the language of “Dog” – we acquire it through careful observation and considerable contemplation. You can do this on your own or we can help provide insights. Individuals and families whose dogs have attended American Dog Obedience Center’s boarding school are invited to schedule one or more private sessions with the dog to study dogly behavior. Phone or email for details.
Some information within this article is from Therapy Dogs Today: Their Gifts, Our Obligation – Second Edition by Kris Butler, and used with permission from Funpuddle Publishing Associates. Single copies of Therapy Dogs Today are available in print and ebook versions from DogWise, with quantity discounts for groups available from publisher.
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© 2014 Kris Butler All rights reserved. Photo by Kris Butler