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Never Hesitate

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and someone posted this quote of his on FB:

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake.  Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

This is quite a co-incidence.  The low temperatures and blowing snow of the past day reminded me of a time I “looked the other way” and I’d already decided that today’s post would be about that incident, though I’m not proud of what I did — or rather DIDN’T do.

I don’t remember how many years ago it was — at least a dozen, though it could be more.  I don’t remember what month, only that it was in the depths of winter.  I was driving home from work in a particularly nasty snowstorm, a blizzard, really.  Stopped at the last traffic light before home, I happened to look to my right and in a gap between buildings only wide enough for viewing from exactly where my car stopped, I saw a dog outside in a backyard. 

I don’t remember what breed she was, though my mental snapshot shows me a dog without a double-coat of insulating fur. I don’t know why I think of her as “she.”  I don’t really think I saw a chain on her, but that is my mental picture.  Perhaps I imagined a chain because her body posture spoke so eloquently and obviously of cold and suffering, and being unable to move someplace warmer.  She was sitting, ears slicked flat against her head, hunched with her back to the wind and her eyes squeezed shut.  I also seem to remember that she was shivering, but couldn’t possibly have been close enough to see something like that.  Snow was piled around her and on top of her.

I wish I could say that I don’t know why I didn’t stop and hammer on her owner’s door.  It was late.  I wanted to get home.  I didn’t think her owners would appreciate me barging in.  Those rental houses always seemed to hold “undersirable” sorts.  I was afraid, but even more than that, was disinclined to put myself out and take the time to help a poor suffering creature.

Dr. King was right; by looking away I have wounded my soul so deeply that it will be with me forever.  I’ve thought of that miserable dog many, many times in the intervening years.  I wonder if she survived that night.  If she ever got brought inside to the warm. If she had to suffer again and again through many more such snowstorms.  

No, the wound I inflicted on my soul will not heal.  I don’t want it to get better! It’s not so much that I think I deserve the punishment, but that I need the reminder — the pain as a spur to action.  I hope the memory of that long-ago, pathetically helpless dog will be such an irritation of spirit that I will never again hesitate to act on behalf of an animal in need.     

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Trade Me!

One of Aesop’s fables tells of a dog with a big bone who sees his reflection in a pond.  He thinks it’s another dog and growls to keep the other dog away from his bone.  Then he noticess that other dog has a bone, too and it looks bigger!  The dog opens his mouth to try to get it — of course dropping the bone he has, losing it in the water.  I can’t remember what the moral of the fable was, but it’s plain that Aesop knew dogs.

He knew that a dog’s first inclination is to hold on to what she has, and try to warn others away so they don’t try to take it.  He also knew that dogs are often easily distracted. (As the very funny Golden Retriever in UP! says — “Squirrel!” — forgetting everything else.)  We can use the second quirk to help us deal with the first, which can become a problem.

I don’t care how sweet your dog is, it’s never a good idea to try to take something out of her mouth.  It’s just not worth the risk. I’ve seen the most happy-go-lucky spaniel-mix stiffen and raise lip at me over a piece of something dead found next to a road.  This from a dog so submissive that you have to keep your hands in your pockets at all times around him to keep from being constantly licked! 

The point is, any dog can decide to guard a ball, a frisbee, or some food, and you don’t want your hands close to those teeth!  A dog might bite.  Even if the dog shifts her grip on the item to hold on to it, your hand can still come away bloodied.

Instead, I take advantage of a dog’s “distractablility” and play the TRADE ME game.  This works to keep a dog from turning a game of FETCH into that all-time doggie fave, KEEP-AWAY.  It keeps your hands well away from the toothy danger zone.  It also makes a dog think it’s getting something good instead of being deprived of something else.

The trick is to find something that the dog likes BETTER or at least AS WELL as the item she holds.  My spaniel-friend doggie kept his illicit goodie because I didn’t have some yummy treats in my pocket at the time, only dry biscuit. Boring!  (But it’s so hard to keep chicken in my pocket all the time…)

For FETCH, usually another throw toy — ball, frisbee, whatever — suffices.  As the dog is returning the first toy, brandish the second one making chirpy sounds and pretending to throw it.  Most dogs will drop the toy in their mouths in anticipation of the second toy being thrown, and their eagerness to chase it. 

For a verboten or dangerous item (like a chicken bone), pull out a piece of cheese or meat.  If your dog isn’t food motivated, a squeaky toy often works.  Let the dog see it — which means she’ll be able to smell it, too.  Wave it around and say, “wanna treat?”  Ask for a sit or the dog’s favorite trick (like give-a-paw).  Most dogs will drop what they have with all this distraction.  Retrieve the verboten item and give the dog the new treat/item. 

This works much better than yelling and/or commanding the dog to “Drop it!”  It keeps everything up-beat and happy!  It’s a win-win.  I think it also builds trust because my dog doesn’t see me as a party-pooper, trying to take her fun away.  Unlike Aesop’s dog, my dog isn’t left with an empty mouth, but is rewarded for listening to me! 


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When We’re Gone

I always cry when reading stories about dogs guarding their deceased master’s graves, or lying hear their caskets at the funeral and refusing to budge,  or like the Akita, Hachiko, waiting at the train station for his master to come home for 11 years.  (His master had a heart attack at work and died.)  The story I just saw posted on FB about Tommy, a GSD who kept returning to the church where he followed his owner’s casket at her funeral, probably wouldn’t have made such a big impact on me, if I hadn’t just returned home after an absence of nearly 4 hours to be met by my own GSD mix, Kita. 

My girl, Kita, has a true case of separation anxiety.  This isn’t the usual looking-out-the-window-occassionally-with-whines-and-a-couple-of-sighsbehavior that all dogs do when they miss their owners.  Kita has full-blown panic attacks caused by any barrier between her and me.  Those panic attacks escalate into destructive behavior like eating through walls, chewing through plexiglass, gnawing on window jams and trying to dig through concrete. 

Though she was always a little “clingy” — GSD dogs are notorious for being “velcro” dogs– Kita was able to be left alone for many years with or without another dog or person.  Then, my job changed from a job at an office with fairly regular hours to a stay-at-home job where my absences were much fewer and far less predicatable.  On Easter Sunday a few years ago, I drove up to the house thinking, “That looks like blood on the windows.”  It was. 

Kita had had a melt-down and if I hadn’t just replaced the windows she’d probably have broken out and been severely injured  doing so.  Instead, she’d broken off all her canine teeth trying to chew through the windows and  jams.   She’d bloodied her paws tried to dig her way out near the door, and shredding the doormat and carpet down to the cement in the mud room.  The aluminum frame around the window in the mudroom door still bears the indentations from her jaws.

We’ve worked long and hard to get her to accept my absence for a four-hour absence, even with another well-known human like my mom staying with her,  Just getting Kita to be calm while I’m in the bathroom or taking out the trash has taken a lot of ingenuity, training, and patience.  So, to come home to a dog that clearly missed me, but wasn’t salivating and panting heavily, whose pupils weren’t blown wide open from a panic-adrenaline rush, and who’d done nothing more than look out the window a lot during my absence made me feel really good.

I don’t know if Kita would follow my casket or sit by my grave or wait on a train platform for years for me.  I don’t know that it would make me feel happy knowing she would.  It DEFINITELY makes me happy when Kita asks to go outside and spends 15 minutes in the backyard on her own.  I am delighted when she chooses to leave my side as I’m at the computer and go lie down on the living room couch.  Seeing her remain calm  when I take out the garbage or go downstairs to put in a load of laundry means Kita is feeling confident to face life on her own, at least in a small way.  And that means the world to me.  

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Don’t Play That Game

If you could poll dogs on this, I think the number one, favorite game of all time for all breeds, and the vast majority of individual dogs would be — KEEP AWAY!  It’s a great game!    A dog can play it with one, or multiple playmates.  It can be played inside or outside; with or without a toy.  And even HUMANS play it — all the time!

Of course, when we’re “playing” we’re not always having as much fun as our dogs!  It usually goes something like this:  Fido proudly gallops out into the middle of your party dragging a bra, or loudly-colored pair of dirty briefs.  You are understandably embarrassed and your one thought is to get that item away from Fido ASAP!  So, you order him to “Drop it!”  Fido is delighted!  He’s gotten your attention, and drops into a play-bow in return, perhaps growling a bit, certainly wagging his tail.  You move towards him speaking sternly.  “Oh joy!” thinks Fido, “She’s getting into the game,” and he takes off.  After much chasing around furniture and all around the house, you decide that you’ve embarrassed yourself enough and let Fido have his prize.  Fido is beside himself with glee!  He’s gotten a rousing session of is favorite game — and gets to chew on his prize!  What more could any dog ask?

Whether it’s this scenario or what you intended to be a game of FETCH or trying to put the dog’s leash on, dogs love to play KEEP AWAY and will seize any opportunity to turn any situation to into that game.  A dog will do this for two reasons, 1) it’s his favorite! and 2) he can!  We’re letting the dogs dictate the game we play — or even IF we’re playing!  

It’s fairly simple — notice I dont’ say EASY — to prevent this.  We just have to remove the “fun-factor!”  If he’s not having a good time, a dog won’t continue wasting the effort.  In almost all situations, the prescription is simply — DON’T ENGAGE IN THE CHASE!   

In the scenario above, once Fido has trotted out the embarrassing item, your face is red, so just turn your back on the dog and walk away.  99% of the time, the dog will follow.  Still IGNORE him.  If you don’t really care about the item and don’t mind if it’s chewed, that’s all you have to do — and get your guests to do the same!  (If you won’t play, Fido will try everyone else!)  If that’s your brand-new silk bra, then turn the game into TRADE ME?

The TRADE ME? game involves just getting something else the dog really values.  For some dogs it’s a treat for others a squeaky toy.  Hold it up enticingly.  99% of the time, the dog will drop the verboten item in anticipation of getting the new one.  I always ask for a SIT or some other command before treating so the dog doesn’t get the idea that he can blackmail you for treats by draggin’ out underwear.  And I make sure that the verboten item is in MY hand before the dog gets the treat!

It really is simple.  What is difficult is not letting our “chase” buttons get pushed!  That is really the hard part because dogs are experts at pushing those buttons.  After all, this is their favorite game and they are the experts at strategy!

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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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Poop Power

If dogs ruled the world, there would be a lot more poop around.  It is distasteful to us, but to a dog , fascination with pee and poop isn’t being vulgar or disgusting!  Dogs live by their noses and to a dog there are no “bad” smells — only smells that give more or less information.  And I suspect the “smellier” the smell, the more info there is to smell!

So that’s why a polite greeting in dogdom is butt sniffing.  I saw a cartoon many years ago that summed it up.  An adult dog was speaking to a puppy with two other adult dogs in the background.  The adult dog said something like, “Junior, I raised you to be polite!  You go right on over to the Fidos and smell their butts!”

That’s why dogs want to sniff our crotches.  It’s a polite, non-threatening greeting and tells them a lot about us!  Dogs get a lot of info about another being from their backside; residual pee, poop, farts, anal glands, the whole works.  Apparently, dog’s noses are so good that they can tell health, reproductive status, dominance level and a bunch of other things just from sniffing you-know-what.

That’s also why dogs like to stop and sniff and mark objects on a walk.  They are reading “pee mail” and sending their own messages.  Dogs poop on walks to lay claim to territory.  When they scratch backwards near the pile, they aren’t trying to cover it up (like a cat would do) but creating “markers” pointing the way to their “deposit!”  Some dogs, mine included, seem to scratch not just to mark the spot, but to throw the poop over a greater distance.  I wonder if this is deliberate, or just a by-product of over-enthusiastic scraping?

When I have a lot of dogs boarding or here for daycare, I make sure I pick up the poop several times a day.  I think it relieves some stress because the yard smells less like multiple dogs are claiming it.  I also find that when I’m using the ole poope-scooper, the other dogs seem to mirror me and sniff around, not paying a great deal of attention to each other.  According to many dog experts, mirroring behavior is a sign of acceptance and pacification to other dogs.  And dogs tend to mirror what the leader is doing.  So maybe I’ve accidentally accessed poop power without leaving my own deposits!

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Become Partly a Dog

become partly a dog

We do seem to try to make our dogs into little people, don’t we? So, many times I hear (out of my mouth, if not someone else’s) “You know you’re not supposed to do that!” But why should the dog automatically know? Dogs have different values than we do! They have different ways of interacting, and doggie etiquette is sometimes very far apart from human manners.

One of the widest gulfs comes in the matter of “counter surfing” — or “coffee/kitchen/dining-room table” surfing. It’s the same thing to a dog. In the human mind, we “know” that the food on those areas belongs to us and expect the dog to know it, too — and respect that. But a dog’s DNA is programmed differntly; food is food and belongs to whoever is THERE.

In dog society, the “big dog” (i.e. leader) gets first dibs on all the good stuff, especially food. When the big dog is finished, s/he walks away. That means the food is up for grabs, and everyone else can squabble over it. Can you see how our dogs misunderstand our body language? We get up and leave a plate of yummy stuff on the coffee table while we go back into the kitchen to get a drink, and are surpised when WHAM, it’s gone by the time we get back! To a dog, the human was finished and signaled that the food was available to anybody who wanted it by going away!

We say, “Oh, she knew she shouldn’t do that — she was eating as fast as she could, and look how guilty she looks!” Okay, she was probably eating fast because it’s good stuff that she doesn’t get very often. That guilty look is probably the result of the dog thinking something like, “my crazy human has yelled at me in the past for doing this, even though she’s saying it’s OK, so I’m cringing a bit in anticipation of some loud noise coming!”

Well, this entry has gone in a different direction than I originally planned when I posted that picture. What I was planning to say was more on the order of — why do we want to teach our dogs to be human with all our hang-ups and neuroses? Wouldn’t it be better for them and US, if we could borrow some of a dog’s live-for-today and enjoy-what-comes-to-the-fullest philosophy? I’m going to try!

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January 11, 2013 · 5:02 pm

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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Speaking “Doglish” part one

I think it was one of my favorite dog experts, Stanley Coren, who coined the term “Doglish” for the language of our domestic canines.  This “language” isn’t really very similar to ours at all.  Dogs do make lots of noises (barks, whines, growls, etc.) that have meaning for them.   However, those noises don’t correspond to words and seem to be used to reinforce body language.   This is just about opposite of how people communicate: we look to body language to reinforce the spoken.  To make things more complicated, dogs interpret body language differently than people do.

For example, look at a simple greeting between humans.  We consider it’s polite to stand facing the other person, smiling, leaning forward, making eye contact and holding out a hand.  A dog interprets a head-on posture and direct stare as a challenge.  Showing teeth with the mouth closed is a warning to back off.   Leaning forward and pawing are also questionable — could be an attack.  Dogs don’t greet each other that way at all!  A polite dog greeting avoids eye contact, mouth closed or open with a relaxed upper lip, making a kind of swerve around the other dog’s head in a comma shape, heading to sniff the other dog’s rear end — and they keep their paws to themselves.

There are further complications when a human greets a dog.  With very few exceptions, humans stand taller than dogs.  When we bend over the dog and try to pat it on the head the dog’s instincts interpret that as an attempt to dominate!  In the dog world, vertical height is not merely symbolic, but as Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell writes “Dogs interpret an increase in vertical height as an increase in status.  Period.”  In other words,  before passing “go” the dog thinks you’re challenging for status! So many times, dog owners tell me that they think their dog was abused early in life because they duck away from a greeting.  After questioning, it turns out that this greeting is usually being hovered over with the human trying to pet the dog on top of the head.  The dog is simply uncomfortable, but too polite to give a warning to back off, so s/he tries to move away.

This misunderstanding is also the cause of dog bites.  I watched an episode of some dog rescue program on Animal Planet where a Rottweiler bit the animal control officer who was petting him soon after rescuing him from a bad situation.  The officer took the blame on himself and the dog was given some re-training.  The program of course, got the officer and dog together again as a follow-up, and the officer stood talking to the interviewer HEAVILY PETTING THE DOG ON THE HEAD!  I watched horrified, knowing what was coming and sure enough, the dog bit him again.  Mind you, the dog had put up with about 30 seconds of what was to him extremely challenging and uncomfortable behavior — while being held in place for the camera.  The Rottie couldn’t escape and was giving signals that he was uncomfortable: wrinkled lip, tensing up, closing his mouth, etc.  But no one was “listening!”

It seems to me that the burden of “understanding” should fall on us humans with our big brains and superior thinking abilities.

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