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.