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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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Body Blocking

Communicating with our dogs goes both ways, of course. We need to understand what they are trying to tell us, and need to find ways to let them know what we expect of them! For both, it really helps to think of the situation from the dog’s point of view. Dr. Bruce Fogle says that “A dog doesn’t expect to be treated like a human. A dog expects a human to act like a dog.”

This is so true! Our dogs probably look upon us as some sort of deformed, two-legged canines! They try very hard to “read” us, but it’s always within the context of their own instincts and natural language. (Slight side-track here: the DNA of dogs and wolves is almost identical. What distinguishes dogs from wolves is their ability to read human body language and understand us. It isn’t because they’re “smarter” — wolves have better problem-solving and thinking skills than dogs. It’s because for our entire history together, humans have “selected” the dogs that could understand us best!)

One way to communicate with dogs on their own terms is BODY BLOCKING. It’s simple, useful in dozens of situations, easy, and your dog will know EXACTLY what you’re getting at. In a nutshell, Body-Blocking, is using your physical presence to control your dog’s behavior. Dr. Patricia McConnell says that , “one of the ways that dogs maintain leadership positions is by controlling the use of space of other individuals.” As the should-be leaders of our canine companions, we can do the same — without aggression, confrontation or stress!

A good example is a dog crowding the door, squirming as close as she can, pushing to be the first one in line to bolt, squeezing out as soon as her nose fits through the crack. This is risky for owner (fall hazard!) and the dog (gaining access to a dangerous space) besides making the dog think she’s higher in the household chain of command than we’d prefer.

I like to calmly place my body (mostly the legs, obviously) between the dog and the door and “herd” the dog away. I don’t say much, usually a quiet, “Back!” repeated a couple of times. Once the dog is far enough away for the door to open, I turn back to do that. If the dog crowds closer, the door shuts and I repeat the “herding” move. (I often ask for a sit, especially if there’s more than one dog because it gives them something to DO.) Basically, the door won’t open and stay open until the dog waits and is released with an OK.

This is also a way to tell a dog to back off from just about anything. I “lay claim” to things the dog tries to get by standing over them or in front of them. These things can be people (a guest the dog has tried to jump on), other pets (a cat the dog tries to chase), things (a counter that the dog has just tried to “surf” for goodies, or a toy that one dog has growled at another dog over.) It’s my way (borrowed from my dog’s vocabulary) to tell the dog that the person/pet/object is MINE and I congtrol who gets it! And you know, it works! Dogs understand — they might look for loopholes at a later time, but that’s another topic!

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