Tag Archives: dog language

Ignoring Speaks Louder than Language

I know my clients, friends, and family undoubtedly get tired of hearing me advise: “IGNORE the behavior you DON’T want to see repeated and PAY ATTENTION to ANYTHING you want your dog to keep doing!”  I know I often sound like a broken record to myself!  For everyone’s sake, I’ve got to think of other ways of getting that point across because, to me, it is training in a nutshell. Everything else is just techniques and strategies to help you accomplish those two things.

As humans, we are so terribly tempted to TALK all the time in training, thinking that will help the dog learn faster. But dogs don’t automatically understand what we’re saying.  They don’t have a natural predisposition for verbal language like humans, so they’re not even listening for verbal cues.  I saw a cartoon once with a lady talking to her dog.  The “speaking” balloon coming from her mouth said something like, “You know better than that, Fido, but you just had to do it anyway!”  The “thinking” balloon coming from the dog’s head looked like this – “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah FIDO! blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…”  you get the point.

Dogs watch what we DO far more than listen to what we SAY. It takes many, many, many repetitions for most dogs to correctly connect the sounds coming out of our mouths with specific actions or situations.  They pay a little more attention to tone of voice, but it still doesn’t help them as much as we think it should.  My mentor, Humane Society of West Michigan’s behaviorist Namiko Ota-Noveskey, says that she can tell when she’s being an effective trainer because she’s not saying much!   Then, she knows she’s focusing on the dog’s body language and using her own to teach the dog!

Something happened in my backyard today that really illustrates how effective IGNORING a dog can be!  My GSD mix, Kita, is 9 years old and never was one to play a lot even in her youth.  A new Daycare client is a Black Lab/St. Bernard mix named Sheba.  She’s only 9 months old and already as big as Kita.  Sheba also LOVES to play and spends HOURS trying to persuade Kita to join her.  Sometimes Kita does – actually to my surprise!  However, today wasn’t one of those days.

Sheba tried every ploy in the book!  Huge play-bows right in front of Kita, front legs spread wide and chest on the ground, rear and tail wiggling madly.  Then, Sheba tried lying down head between paws to give Kita the ole sad-puppy dog eyes with some begging-whines!  After that didn’t work, came the bouncing all around from every angle in play-bows — barking all the while.  Through all that Kita continued sniffing the ground and the air without so much as a glance in Sheba’s direction.  So, Sheba started dashing right up to Kita, nose to nose and then would run away in the “butt on fire” gait of a dog that’s expecting to be chased.  Kita looked in the other direction.  Now being a bit of a distance away, Sheba charged, in huge gallumphing strides directly at Kita looking for all the world as if she was going to bowl her over.  Kita calmly lifted her nose a bit and gazed off at the horizon.  As a last-ditch effort, Sheba tried some deliberately provocative actions:  nudging Kita’s nose and face repeatedly, then “T-ing” (putting her head over Kita’s back.)  Kita remained unimpressed.  Sheba at last acknowledged defeat and looked for a stick to chew.

Kita never once lost her cool.  She stood her ground, but never made eye contact.  She never wrinkled a lip or made a vocalization, even when the “puppy” was in her face and being a bit of a brat!  Now, T-ing is a form of jockeying for dominance, and Kita does not take kindly to being so challenged.  Sheba clearly was trying that to get ANY reaction out of Kita – even a negative one!  I think Kita knew just what the puppy was doing and wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction – the ATTENTION!

Sheba didn’t give up easily!  Her behavior got worse before it got better!  Kita didn’t have human language skills to help her, but she didn’t even use a dog’s limited repertoire of vocalizations to “say” anything.  She didn’t even need to take any direct action to get HER point across to Sheba!  I’m not too proud to learn a lesson from my dog!  She’s not the most patient animal I’ve ever met, and probably wouldn’t have taken all that from an adult dog.  But Kita today gave me a textbook example of how to teach a puppy some manners!

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Held to a Higher Standard, part II

We humans recognize that there are constructive, or at least “legal” and acceptable ways for us to vent our aggression.  Instead of gunning the motor and ramming the car that cuts me off in traffic, I turn the air “blue” inside my car with some choice bad words.  Rather than pulling out a gun and shooting the guy who lets his Mastiff poop on my lawn (and doesn’t clean it up) I can shoot  a picture and with this evidence report him to the appropriate  authorities.  Though I might want to punch out the rude sales clerk, I can be rude in turn, or ask to speak to her manager.  We are social animals, meaning we live with others of our kind, and that means we will inevitably disagree and anger each other, sometimes to the point of violence.  All of the examples above are aggression, but we’ve ritualized physical violence into lawsuits, complaints and swearing.

Dogs have evolved a similar set of ritualized behaviors.  They’re social animals, too  — and they carry dangerous weapons (large teeth and powerful jaws) around with them all the time!   If dogs hadn’t found other ways to express and avoid violence, they’d have killed and injured each other to the point where their species wouldn’t have survived!  Dogs actually start learning this ritualization before they can see or walk.  If the puppies bite too hard on mama-dog’s nipples, she gets up and takes “dinner” with her.  Puppy teeth, those super-sharp little spikes, come in about the time puppies start wrestling with their siblings.  It has been theorized that evolution “selected” those sharp teeth (not really needed for nursing) because dogs need to learn bite inhibition.  Needle-like teeth penetrate their sibling’s fur, so they can feel a bite that is too roughly delivered! And just like mama-dog did, a sibling who feels pain will pull away from her brother and not want to play.  So dogs learn to “pull their punches” long before they develop the jaw strength and grow the adult teeth to do real damage.

There’s a whole set of ritualized warnings before the inhibited bite! We don’t give dogs enough credit! They actually very rarely make contact. They prefer to freeze with a closed mouth, wrinkle a lip, show some teeth, growl, glare sideways, give a warning snap in the general direction of what’s annoying them. People often say, “He tried to bite, but I pulled away in time.” Unlikely!  A dog’s reflexes are so much faster than ours that when they want to bite — they do. A ninja couldn’t react fast enough to avoid a snap if the dog was in earnest!  A snap that doesn’t “land” is a warn-off that even we humans should be able to notice, understand and respect.

Most dogs will bite if pushed far enough.  Fearful dogs are more likely to bite than “dominant” dogs who are sure of themselves.  However, even when a dog actually bites a human, it’s most often a warning bite where the dog inhibits the bite force. Rather than crushing bone, the snap causes a few punctures. If that bite fell on another dog’s neck it probably wouldn’t even reach the skin through the hair.  Unfortunately, we humans don’t have that protection.

I am NOT making light of a dog biting a human.  It is profoundly shocking and upsetting when one does.  Some dear friends own a lovely “all-American” dog that I’ve known from her puppyhood 9 years ago.  She was under a year old when this incident occurred and I was not as well-versed in a dog’s body language then as I am now.  Helping to clean up the kitchen at their house, I noticed Funky licking the dishes already in the dishwasher.  I yelled at her, she continued to lick.  She may have given warning signals – I think I remember a growl — but I was too ignorant of Doglish then to pay attention. Thoughtlessly, I tried to push her jaws away from a resource she regarded as hers, and she bit me.  It brought me to tears!  Upon inspection, she hadn’t even broken the skin, but the action was so unexpected and seemed so violent to me that I cried!

Believe me, if Funky had wanted to do damage, she could and would have!  She clearly inhibited her bite – meaning it as a warning, not punishment!  I consider that this incident was my fault for expecting her, a puppy, to understand what was forbidden in a human household.  I was a visitor in her house and trying to tell her what to do – which we humans rightly consider to be our right, but at times fail to TEACH the dog!  I ignored any warning signals, and she still didn’t want to really harm me.  To my knowledge, Funky has never bitten anyone else.  She is incredibly gentle with small children and babies, noticeably making allowances for their grabbing, poking and pulling behavior.  How sad if my friends had over-reacted and sent Funky to a shelter or had her euthanized for that one snap.  Unfortunately, many people might have — and many lawmakers want to require them to do so!

I believe dog owners should be required to learn more about their body language and how to deal with and not provoke a dog into biting.  I pray that parents teach their children to recognize the warning signals a dog gives and respect those signals instead of punishing the dog for giving them! It is my fervent hope that we do not automatically assume that all dogs, in all circumstances, with all people will be calm, happy and friendly.   My point in this and yesterday’s posting is that HUMANS are the animals with the bigger brain, so shouldn’t we be gracious enough to extend to dogs the same forgiveness according to “circumstances” that we claim for ourselves?  I certainly would place a bit more of the onus for managing and dealing with those differing circumstances on the animal with the bigger brain!

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And Thereby Hangs a Tail

If we see a dog, a tail should be hanging thereby! However many breeds don’t have much of one! Though there are a few, like the Australian Shepherd, born with little or no tail, almost all “bobbed” breeds get that way through human intervention. I’m not going to discuss the issues concerning pain and trauma to the dog in this post. Even if the process was totally painless — even if it does indeed save a working dog from damaging its tail (as is the excuse for many of these cosmetic changes) — I would still consider docking a dog’s tail to be cruel to the animal.

Dogs depend on their tails to communicate. No wild canine species is tail-less. Most have large, well-furred caudal appendages! A tail adds weight to carry around, and growing thick fur requires lots of good food that could be used by the brain or kidneys!. Natural selection has a way of eliminating structures that are unimportant, that do not contribute to a species survival. If the luxurious tails of wild dogs didn’t help them stay alive, the ones with smaller tails would have won the evolutionary race until dogs were naturally tail-less.

But that isn’t the case. In cold climates, wolves and foxes curl their tail around their noses during sleep to keep warm. A tail can act as a counter-balancing rudder when making quick changes of direction. Even though domestic dogs don’t need a tail to keep warm or hunt, they still need it to COMMUNICATE.

Canines are social animals and all social animals need to share information and keep track of relationships within the group. If they could not, they would not survive long in or as a group. Their language, unlike ours, is primarily one of posture, gesture and body language. The tail is one of the most expressive body parts a dog possesses! Dogs do not wag or make other moves with their tails if they are alone, so a tail is clearly used to communicate with other animals.

My comprehension of “Doglish” is no better than an English-speaking adult trying to master a complex, unrelated language like Mandarin Chinese. Even though I can’t begin to see, let alone interpret even half of what a dog’s tail tells another dog, it tells me a lot!

Clipped beneath the belly, the dog is afraid and afraid to the point of protecting against injury. Hanging limply straight down, the dog is nervous and doubtful, especially if the tail gives a tentative wag. Clamped tight over the anus, the tail tells another dog that it is NOT welcome to sniff butt — the dog may be fearful or be a dominant dog denying an inferior into his personal space. Hanging low, but slightly curling and wagging just a bit, the dog is friendly, but wonders if you are. Held motionless, straight out, level with the spine and stiff means the dog is hunting — it might be a little furry creature or a playmate or the dog next door who has come too far into his domain. Held high over the back, with the fur fluffed out says the dog is trying to establish dominance, even if the tail is wagging it will wag stiffly from the base like a metronome. A loose, easily-moving tail making big swishy swooping wags is relaxed and pretty happy. A tail whipping from side to side, carrying the hips with it means the dog is very happy and excited and seeing someone he likes. A tail that goes around and around like a propeller says the dog has nothing else on his mind except being your friend.

Those are only the meanings I came up with right off the top of my head out of my poor, broken-Doglish patois! A canine probably would detect three or four times that many meanings besides! (Also, please note that the tail only tells part of the “tale” and with each position above, a change in ears, muzzle, body, vocalizations etc. can further shade the translation.) My point is that if I, a mere human with no caudal appendage, can get that much information from a tail, a dog without one must be handicapped much like a deaf human using sign-language would be if he lost a hand.

Take the Rottweiler, for example. They are big, smooth-muscles dogs with a sleek coat — and if not docked — a long, somewhat bushy tail! I’m sure that is why the tail is docked. Having something pretty close to a GSD’s tail looks mis-matched “hung” on the sleekly-furred rump of a Rottie. However, docked down to a couple of vertebrae, the tail cannot give the signals I described above. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rotties are one of the most difficult dogs to “read.” We’ve taken away their means of communication. I think much of their reputation for aggression stems from humans and other dogs misunderstanding their signals. Signals that a Rottie thinks he’s sending, but doesn’t have the tail to put across.

In most breeds, tail-docking these days is really for cosmetic reasons.  Breeders couldn’t accomplish everything with genetics alone, and resorted to snipping off the bits (usually ears and tails) that didn’t match.  Yes, there were some reasons to trim vulnerable parts when dogs were out in the field all day, getting their tails ripped up by the brush, or to keep them from being chewed up in a dog-fight. To deprive a dog of his means of communicating just seems wrong to me and I wonder at the promotion of the practice by those who are advocates for a particular breed and (one presumes) the welfare of that breed. And thereby hangs another tale!

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Do Dogs Resemble Their Owners?

dogs look like people

There’s an old story that Winston Churchill, with his pugnacious glare and jowly face, greatly resembled his pet bulldog.  Love that story, and ole Winston certainly looked like a two-legged bulldog, didn’t he?  Unfortunately, that is just a story.  Though some member-or-other of his family did own a bulldog, Mr. Churchill’s own personal pet was a poodle.

Maybe the Prime Minister and his poodle are the exception that proves the rule?  We certainly have all noticed how many people do resemble the family dog.  I don’t know if the illustrations in the picture here are the real owners with their pets; I suspect these are staged shots.  However, there has been some research on this subject.  The studies show a greater-than-chance correlation between owner of dogs with upstanding vs. hanging-down ears and owners who wear their hair shorter-than or pulled behind their ears vs. hanging down over them!  Though I could site many examples of how owners and dogs resemble each other physically, what I really notice is how often dogs resemble their owners in temperament!   

Scientists mostly agree these days that personality is influenced by both nature and nurture.  Obviously, some puppies are shy and others outgoing right from day one, so your pet has some “pre-programming.”  However, most dog trainers will tell you that what the owner feels travels “right down the leash” and creates a similar state in their dog.  So, a nervous dog will most often have a nervous owner.

Dogs really do imitate their owners in this way.  Dogs are very good at adapting to circumstances and looking to people for cues of how to behave.  Though dogs and wolves share practically the same DNA and wolves have better problem-solving skills, studies show dogs far outpace wolves in any test which involves reading humans and working with them.  In fact, dogs are the ONLY animal capable of something that seems very simple to us:  following a pointing finger.   Wolves can’t.  Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, can’t!  But the domestic dog has been selectively bred for some 40,000 years plus to be our best friends and follow our cues. 

So, whether we bring a puppy or an adult dog into the family, this is a new situation — a new “pack” — for the dog.  The dog will look to the humans as the established member(s) of the pack for clues of how to behave; what is dangerous, what is good, what is frightening, etc. We don’t have to say anything. Dogs can hear the human heartbeat speed up and respiration quicken.  They can smell the biological changes in our bodies that come with anger and fear.  So, it isn’t really surprising that a dog living in a household of humans who are “on edge” all the time will learn to view the world as full of suspicious things and situations and be nervous, too!

So, does that mean I think my dog Kita “caught” all her neuroses (she’s afraid of the refrigerator, and thunder), suspicions (she assumes anyone new is up to no good), and anxieties (she can’t bear to be left alone for long) from me?  No, I don’t hold myself responsible for ALL of her hangups;  she came with a lot of them full-blown!  However, before Kita came into my life, I wouldn’t have said I was a nervous, suspicious or anxious person.  Watching how my reactions make Kita’s natural tendencies worse, I have identified that I need to consciously relax and be calm to help her.  Just taking deep, slow breaths helps both of us.  So does deliberately speaking in a low-pitched, low-volume, slow manner.  Whenever I see Kita getting out of control, I realize that my own control is slipping and know I need to stop reacting and start being pro-actively calm.  Dogs may not be our furry twins, but they are furry mirrors!

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Innocent until proven guilty!

Just saw a post on Facebook.  A short video of a German Shepherd Dog curled up in a shower stall.  The owner shot a few frames of a torn-up sheet then walked into the shower to film the dog hiding.  The narration went something like, “She knows she’s guilty!  Did you chew up that sheet?  Did you?  You’d better hide!”  The GSD kept her gaze averted and as the man continued to speak to her, looked up and away.  The man then said, “Now she’s praying for forgiveness!  Don’t worrry, we still love you,” or something in that mode — however his tone of voice didn’t change.

Now, this man wasn’t yelling, and he wasn’t really using a lot forceful emphasis, either.  I don’t know what he said before he started filming.  I don’t know if he’s yelled in the past, but this apparently happens all the time — the dog proving she’s guilty by hiding in the shower.  Even though he wasn’t yelling it was very obvious to a velcro-type dog like a GSD, that he was unhappy with her.

I am the first to say that dogs understand and can figure out a lot more than they’ve historically been given credit for.  I also believe that they have a rich emotional life!  However, current scientific studies indicate that dogs simply do not have the full range of emotions that humans do.  Dr. Stanley Coren postulates that dogs, like human babies begin with the simpler emotions like Excitement, Distress, Contentment, Disgust, Anger, Fear, Joy, Suspicion, Love.  Human babies have all these by age 1, then there is quite a lag before they develop the more complex emotions (Shame, Pride, Guilt, Contempt)  around their third birthday.  But dogs probably don’t develop those emotions since their emotional development stops in that long lag time that human infants experience. 

“But she ACTS guitly!” people say!  Maybe.  Because we adults have all those complex emotions, and because humans tend to anthropomorphize, humans see a dog hiding in a shower stall after being “caught” with the “smoking gun” of chewed-up bedding and assume she feels guilt. Maybe it’s just that to the human, she LOOKS guilty. However, a closer look at the dog’s body language might tell us a different story.

In the dog world, one dog placates another by removing herself from the angry dog’s space.  If confronted, she looks away and avoids eye contact.  In this case, the human not only followed her to her retreat, but brought a “big eye” (i.e. camera — many dogs react to cameras the same way they would to staring eyes) and leaned in close.  The human continued to talk in a way that told the dog she was in disgrace.  The dog was curled up in a ball, trying to make herself small and show that she wasn’t going to challenge the “big dog.”  Her eyebrows were going up and down, indicating she was worried and confused.  When the human continued and got even closer, she looked up and away in an exaggerated manner to make sure he understood that she wasn’t going to be a threat.  When he finally said something like, “We still love you,” the tone of voice didn’t change, his posture didn’t change, he didn’t back off and the poor dog had no way of knowing that she wasn’t still in “the dog house!”

However none of that says to me that she understood what she’d done wrong — which is absolutely necessary for feeling guilt.  Her body spoke eloquently of her confusion and feeling of betrayal as her beloved human continued to push her down after her acceptance of his dominance.  She couldn’t retreat any further, she couldn’t say any more.  Many dogs in that position could turn aggressive.  She didn’t.  But it was clearly breaking her heart that she couldn’t make “her” human understand. 

She probably chewed the bedding because it smelled like her humans.  They left her alone in the house — she had no way of knowing it wasn’t forever.  It made her feel better to chew and chew on something with her humans’ scent on it.  When they returned, she was probably very very very happy to see them, but also very very conflicted.  Remembering previous times when the humans returned and found chewed items, she anticipted receiving the same disapproval they’d shown before.  So, she did what confused dogs do — pull away and hide.

I don’t say the dog was innocent of chewing.  Dogs LOVE to chew.  It makes them feel better!  I suffered from a GSD dog that loved to chew everything that smelled of me.  But she was innocent of malicious intent.  She wasn’t trying to “get back” at them for leaving her.  And she tried to say she was sorry for whatever it was that had displeased her humans.  I wish they’d accepted her apology sooner.

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Speaking “Doglish” part four

Many people tell me that it sounds like I’m talking about little kids when I write about dogs.  Well, a lot of experts, including Dr. Stanley Coren, are of the opinion that a dog’s language and emotional development is that of a child 2-3 years old.   Their cognitive and problem-solving “age” is probably higher, but it’s difficult to establish comparisons because after age 2-3, a child uses language to think and a dog doesn’t have those same language skills. 

Temple Grandin in ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION hypothesizes that dogs (and other animals) think in pictures, like she does.  That the language-center of the brain is a late-comer to the evolutionary party.  That sounds logical to me.  No one can deny that a being who thinks in pictures is unable to think very deeply and solve very complex problems.  Not with Temple’s example and PhD to prove it!

So, I think comparing dogs and their behavior/thinking to a toddler’s is quite accurate, and a very helpful way of explaining behavior to clients and friends.  Most humans have a lot of experience with kids and can use that to help them deal with the crazy things their dog throws at them.  Just remember that dogs are like pre-verbal kids and a lot of the same strategies for teaching and disciplining will apply!

For example:  ATTENTION-GETTING!  Any parent or dog owner knows that if you answer the phone, the child or doggie who was happily playing with toys instantly needs something, anything, everything that will result in YOU paying attention to THEM!  Dealing with the situation offers the same choices.  1) Hang up and pay attention to the child/dog, 2) try to continue the phone conversation while tending to whatever the child/dog needs/wants, or 3) ignoring the child/dog and the subsequent escalation of concentration-breaking strategies. 

Usually, we can’t just hang up, and I don’t know about you, but my concentration levels aren’t up to doing two things at once these days.  Plus, I don’t recommend pandering to a dog by giving it instant notice every time it begs, unless you want a dog that expects you to ask “how high” when s/he says “Jump!”  So, that leaves ignoring.  And you know what?  That’s what another dog would do! 

Dog’s don’t have the verbal language to say, “Mommy’s busy right now, go play nicely on your own.”  Instead, an adult dog being pestered by a puppy looks up and away from the puppy.  This insures that there is no eye contact,  The adult dog doesn’t paw at or growl/bark at the puppy.  They just IGNORE until the puppy gets the idea.  I’ve also seen adult dogs do this with younger, smaller and/or subordinate dogs. 

So, when a dog tries to get my attention in an inappropriate way or at an inappropriate time, the first thing I do is imitate Mama-dog.  I look up and away.  In “Doglish” that means “go away, you bother me!”  Puppies (and older dogs, too) are programmed to understand that!  Whether the dog is barking because I’m on the phone, or jumping up on me in a greeting, IGNORING is the way to go!   

Just remember that “Ignoring” means “no looking, no talking, no touching!”   Even, “No, no bad dog!” is ATTENTION!  Even giving the dog a dirty look is ATTENTION!  Even pushing the dog off your lap is ATTENTION!  A dog will take negative attention to NO attention, any day of the week! 

Another thing to remember and mentally prepare yourself for is that ignoring an established behavior (one that’s gotten the dog attention in the past) will provoke MORE and WORSE behavior, at first.  The dog will keep trying what worked before — and try it louder and harder and longer! 

My friend’s dog, Funky, stares and gives little croony growls when she wants on your lap.  Well, the first time it wasn’t convenient to have her on my lap, she started in and I ignored her.  Fifteen minutes later. my friend was asking if she should put Funky outside.  I said she could, but Funky might take that as attention (though attention resulting in an unwanted result — not a BAD way to handle things) but that Funky should give up soon, and though she might try it again, it wouldn’t last this long.   A minute or so later, Funky gave up and after 15 seconds of quiet, I called her over, asked her for a SIT and gave her a little positive attention — though NOT a place on my lap.  That provoked some croony growls. As soon as my head went up and I looked away, Funky stopped!  Now that was a fast-learner! 

Not all dogs learn that fast, but they all do learn faster when you speak their own language.  They don’t have to learn what you’re saying first and then learn to apply that to what’s happening!  And all dogs will learn very quickly what behavior is acceptable when the alternative is being ignored.  When it gets right down to it, whether you’re talking about dogs or kids, your ATTENTION is the most potent training tool! 

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