Last week I gave you a short run-down of canine body language, and how to respond to certain canine cues and signals. But, why is it important to understand your dog, or other people’s dogs, for that matter?

Of course, safety is the number one reason, and for this reason, several organizations have cropped up to explain canine body language in order to reduce dog bites to people, and particularly to children. In addition to safety, there is also the responsibility to your own dog to keep him safe and comfortable – what I call “respecting your dog”. In other words, beyond simply training your dog to understand and respond to your cues, actually allowing your dog the opportunity to communicate back to you is also important.

Respecting your dog means remembering that, in many cases, behavior that many consider “stubborn” may actually be a true lack of understanding of the cue being given; behavior that may be considered “insolent” could actually be a result of fear or pain; behavior that some consider “naughty” may actually be an attempt to communicate discomfort.

Years ago, in the days when leaving a dog on a “down-stay” outside a store was perfectly safe, I used to walk with my German shepherd dog, Nick, to the grocery store on errands for my mother. One summer day, he decided to stop walking nicely and tried to pull me across the parking lot; I grew frustrated as he forged ahead, insisting that he heel next to me and wondering what was going on with him. Days later, I was headed back to the store with him, only this time, I was barefoot. I took one step onto that pavement and immediately understood what my poor dog had tried to communicate to me – it was BURNING HOT. I had ignored my dog previously when I should have “listened” to him, and I felt terrible in that realization.

I often see clients with nervous or fearful dogs who tell me that their dog won’t stay on the “correct” side of them in certain parts of a neighborhood, or that the dog will pull on leash to pass certain houses (with resident barking dogs.) Instead of allowing their dog to switch sides, or speeding up the pace to allow their dog to get past that scary barker, they insist that their dogs are just being difficult. I’ve also witnessed unwitting owners reprimanding their tiny, frightened dogs for growling at the huge dog who suddenly stuck his face into their space. Recognizing your dog’s challenges and working with them instead of against them, this is respect!

In addition to being able to understand and respect your own dog, understanding canine body language can be tremendously beneficial in keeping you safe in encounters with strange dogs. Many a time I’ve had people tell me that they were frightened of dogs, and that all dogs hated them. I’m convinced that it’s not coincidental. When you take into account a fearful person’s response of eyes wide open and staring directly at the object of their fear, it is no wonder dogs respond poorly. In dog language, direct, face-on eye contact is usually considered a threat display, and many dogs will respond accordingly if a person looks at them this way. Dogs, on the other hand, turn their faces away from the thing they fear, while keeping their eyes on it sideways. This often results in the whites of the eyes showing, or what is known as “whale eye.”

Most of us want the best possible relationship with our dogs. Understanding our dogs’ body language and opening the door for two-way communication with them is a great first step toward taking our relationships to the next level.

Say What?

Among the many discussions that have been the buzz among dog trainers and behaviorists recently, a common theme is the topic of understanding dog body language. As professionals working with dogs, not understanding what a dog is trying to communicate to us can lead to serious injury, as we have recently seen happen to a popular television personality.

While many people understand the basic communications of dogs such as growling and happy tail wagging, there is so much more to dog communication. Although dogs do vocalize in a variety of ways to communicate, the majority of their communications are non-verbal. And just as tears and crying do not always signify sadness in humans, a wagging tail does not always mean a friendly or happy dog, and a growl does not always signal aggression. (There are “play growls” as well!)

How can you know just what a dog is trying to say to you? If you want the complete story, watch its entire body. Following are some basic tips for ‘reading’ a dog. By putting different cues together, you may get a better idea of what your dog (or your neighbor’s dog) is trying to tell you.

Ears – there are a variety of ear types and some are easier to read than others, but their general positions are similar. If the dog is communicating deference, the ears will typically be pulled back, or at half-mast in some dogs.  A curious dog will have its ears forward, possibly combined with a head-tilt. If the ears are far forward and the dog is standing tall and leaning forward, that could be a sign of a potentially aggressive attitude.

Eyes – Windows to the soul, this applies to dogs as well.  If you have an affectionate dog at home, you are, no doubt, familiar with the ‘soft eyes’ of the polite, loving dog.  ‘Hard eyes’ that stare directly can be a challenge, while averted eyes, often coupled with a head-turn, mean that the dog does not wish to interact.  This is averted head is commonly seen when a young, rambunctious dog approaches an older dog that does not want to play.

Lips/Mouth – Most people understand that raised lips in a snarl are an aggressive display. However, many dogs also raise their lips in a canine submissive grin. The difference is that the lips are pulled back for the grin instead of forward, and the eyes remain soft or sometimes even closed completely. Again, it’s important to see what the rest of the dog is doing to determine what is really being communicated.

Tail – The movement of the tail is less important than the position. Keeping in mind that some dogs have naturally high or naturally low tail carriages, a very high tail indicates more confidence, while a lowered tail indicates respect or nervousness. A truly happy dog will have its tail at a neutral level – straight out – and wagging widely. And most of us have seen the dogs whose entire bodies wag in the unmistakable sign of joy.Fearful Dog Body Language

When we put it all together, it’s most important to take things in context. Just as “your dog is the best” can be construed in many ways, depending on the person’s facial expression and which word is most emphasized, so is canine body language. One of the easiest ways to learn is to observe your own dog in situations with which you are familiar. Note the tail, ears, eyes, etc and remember what the overall dog is doing. Thus, when placed in an unfamiliar situation, it will be much easier to understand exactly what your dog is trying to communicate.

Watching other dogs play and interact can also be helpful. Once we understand our dogs’ signals and attempts to communicate, how then should we respond? Of course, the happy dog has an easy answer: pet him or play with him! With the fearful and angry dogs, things are not so simple.

While many people feel compelled to try to help a frightened animal “feel better” by talking in a soothing tone and continuing to approach, this could lead to serious injury for both of you! Frightened animals often lash out in attempts to defend themselves from perceived threats. If a dog appears afraid it is wise to keep your distance. If the dog is unfamiliar, consider calling in an expert such as an animal control officer to handle it. If you are stuck in a small space with such an animal, do not make direct eye contact. If it’s your own dog and he needs help (i.e. he’s injured), you might try covering him completely with a blanket, though he may still bite.

And what if the dog that you are approaching growls? Growling is an often misunderstood signal. While many people view the aggression and feel the need to “prove” to the dog that they are not frightened, or feel that they must remain “dominant”, a growl is an important warning signal. For this reason, modern trainers with the top credentials now recommend never to punish your own dog for growling, and to heed the growl and back off.

I’ll stop here to elaborate on the growl. Consider two people with guns: the first yells at you as you approach, saying “I have a gun, please leave”, while the second person surprises you and shoots you unexpectedly. Which person would you prefer to face? I personally would prefer the person who warns me and gives me the opportunity to leave. This is the person who does not wish to shoot me, but fears that they may have to. So it is with a growl. But if a dog is repeatedly punished for growling, then his warning signal (“back off please”) is eliminated, and he will be forced to bite without warning when his threshold has been breached.

So, what should you do if your dog is growling? In such a case you will be better suited to determine his reasons for growling, and spend some time teaching him that growling it is not necessary. Of course, when in doubt, call in a professional to help you to resolve the issue, and make certain that the methods used do not escalate your dog’s issues.

With other people’s dogs, avoid confrontation in order to avoid injury; step slowly away, keeping your head turned so as not to make direct eye contact. If the dog is on a leash in the control of another person, do not approach that person as it could make it more difficult for them to control the dog.

If you have additional questions about canine body language or how to respond to dogs’ signals, I highly recommend the book, “Canine Body Language” by Brenda Aloff, as well as websites such as Dr. Sophia Yin’s website and other similar sites.

Surf’s Up!

I often get updates on the dogs with which I have worked, telling me how well they are doing or showcasing some special talent. Few things give me more satisfaction in my job than to see a dog that has grown into a focused athlete or performance dog. Seeing a former student perform an amazing Canine Freestyle routine, or run a clean and fast agility course, or finish a successful flyball race. Although most dog sports are considered “individual events”, I consider them all team sports, as the dog and handler must work in close communication in order to succeed.

Of all of the dog-handler teams that I have coached, Abbie and Michael are among those that make me the most proud.

Abbie poses with surfboard

Michael, Abbie and C

Among other things, Abbie is a Guinness World Record holding surfing dog. I met Abbie and Michael years ago, when they showed up in my basic training class. Abbie was a young Kelpie, and Michael’s first dog, adopted from the Humane Society Silicon Valley. She had been found near death along the side of the road and taken to the shelter. Being drawn to high drive dogs, I saw the potential in her right away, and set my mind to encourage Michael to get involved in dog sports or other activities. My thought was to keep Abbie’s busy mind as occupied as possible so that she would not become a problem for him. He picked up the proverbial ball, and ran with it, moving through my series of classes into sports preparation. What I loved about Michael was his desire to learn as much as he could about working with his high energy dog. He would frequently call me with questions, or asking for training suggestions on certain topics.

When he announced that they were moving to San Diego, I was sad at not getting to see them, but wished them well and asked Michael to keep in touch. As with many clients, though, I did not really expect to hear from him. I was pleasantly surprised to continue to get notices from him about the various activities that he was doing with Abbie, including achieving her Canine Good Citizen certificate and Junior Herding Dog title.

But the really exciting news started coming when Michael introduced Abbie Girl to surfing! Unlike many dogs who are trained very gradually, Michael put Abbie on a board just as a way to rest when they were out swimming in the ocean. Abbie took to it right away, and has been a surfing fanatic ever since.

Abbie catches a wave at Surf Dog competition

As I always emphasize in my classes and with my clients, dog training, particularly in sports, is all about relationship. And when people have nervous dogs, as Abbie was when she was young, I tell them that they must do all that they can to convince their dogs to trust them completely. One of the keys to the relationship that Michael has with Abbie is what he now calls “Trust, Not Training”. This does not mean that he does not train Abbie, but it does mean that he won’t convince her to do something that is against her nature or frightening for her. Instead, he has taught her to trust him completely, and she happily and willing does things for him – and with him – because her trust in him is exceptional.

With this philosophy, Michael has accomplished with Abbie what many people wouldn’t dream of, and he takes her with him on all kinds of excursions from hiking and mountain biking to surfing and paragliding. His work with her has landed them commercial spots, including a segment on the Dogs 101 TV program, as well as a lovely piece for the San Diego tourism board.

Michael continues to promote Abbie’s accomplishments and has since landed spots for her in movies, including the 2010 feature film, Marmaduke. Through the bond that they share together, Abbie and Michael can accomplish anything, and I consider them role models for anyone who loves dogs and truly wants a relationship with a dog that is beyond just “master and dog”.

If you are interested in following Abbie Girl in her continuing adventures, check out her Facebook Page and Website (coming soon).

How Much Is That Doggy In the Window?

Choosing a New Canine Companion for Your Household

 While most of you reading this already have dogs, you may be considering getting another dog, either now or in the future. When first considering this, most people think in general terms: “I want… a big dog; or a dog that doesn’t shed; or a dog that needs little exercise”.

While these are valid questions, they are the tip of the iceberg. Whether you want a purebred dog or a mixed breed, a rescue or from a breeder, there are many more questions that you should ask yourself and your family prior to bringing home a new canine companion.

If you have a dog already at home, the first question to ask is, “does my dog need or want a sibling?” Some dogs simply don’t do well with other dogs at home, even if they enjoy playing with other dogs outside the home. If this is the case, you may find yourself with more problems than solutions. It’s also important to keep in mind that, similar to people, dogs have different personalities, and most cannot be expected to get along perfectly with every other dog they meet. (Do you know of any adult human who has never had an argument?) When considering another dog, consider your current dog’s personality. Is he pushy? Overly shy? Is she rambunctious and playful? Ideally, it’s a good idea to take your dog to meet the potential sibling in a neutral place to be sure they are going to be compatible.

Once you’ve decided on the ideal companion type for your current dog, ask yourself and your family the following:

  • How much time do we have to spend with a new dog?
  • Do we want an active dog or a sedate dog?
  • What do we want to do with our dog? Dog sports? Family outings? Quiet time in front of the TV?
  • Do we have space for an active dog? A small yard? Or do I want to run daily with my dog?
  • What size of a dog do we have the space for at home?
Kovu Jumps

If you’re seeking a high-energy, smart and affectionate boy, Kovu may be your ideal companion.

Keep in mind that space and size are not always directly related. A large, quiet dog might easily live in an apartment, while a smaller, but highly active dog may need a much larger yard – unless someone will run with him regularly. And some homeowners associations and apartment complexes have size restrictions as well.

Additional considerations include the size of your family; ages of the children; how often you have visitors; the general activity level of the household; and other pets who may need to be considered, such as cats or other small animals. A high energy dog with a strong prey drive may not be a good choice if you have a cat, for instance.

Adidas runs on the beach

If a smaller sports dog is more to your liking, consider Adidas, a terrier mix.

Once you’ve decided on the size, activity level, and temperament of the dog you want, your work is not finished. Consider doing more research on your chosen breed(s) or mix. Google, talk to breeders and enthusiasts, go see them at shows and ask lots of questions.

Finally, the decision of whether to get a puppy or an adult dog is also important and there are advantages to each. With a puppy, you can start “from scratch”, training it up exactly as you want. With an adult dog, the potty training and destructiveness are often completed, but it may be difficult to know what he’s been through, and there may be some re-training required.

If you are considering a dog for dog sports, consider checking out our High Drive Dogs Listing Service. And check out your local shelters. The ideal sports dog often has a preference for humans over other dogs and takes direction easily. If the dog you are considering is in foster care, ask whether he or she is able to focus on tasks or whether he gets easily distracted by the environment.

Whether you choose a puppy or adult dog, do your research and consider carefully. Picking a dog or puppy because it’s really cute, or is the color you like, can have disastrous consequences if the temperament is not a good match for your family. Given the choice between looks and temperament, I will choose the right temperament every time, and I strongly recommend this tactic.