Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Canine Body Language: Part 1--The Basics!

 Last week, a friend of mine tagged me in a Facebook post.  She'd been watching a dog program on TV and the people in the show were describing how unpredictable their dog was, never giving any warning before he bit. My friend indicated that she was absolutely shocked at how much these people missed about their dog!  Apparently, the dog practically screamed "I'M GOING TO BITE YOU!" with his body language, but the people weren't seeing it.  This truly flabbergasted me as in 30 years of observing dogs, I've never met one who didn't give a warning of some kind before biting.  It's true some dogs are a bit more subtle than others (and we'll talk about why that is!), but, apparently, the dog in this program was very clear; my friend could "hear" him through the TV loud and clear.  Too bad the owners couldn't.

Canine body language is one of my favorite subjects to talk about.  There is so much information to cover, however, that I'm going to divide this into two, back-to-back blog posts.  Those of you who are good observers of dog behavior may find this more of a review.  But for those of you new to the world of dogs, or for those looking to better understand their canine companions,  these posts are for you!

Dogs are keen observers of people and make every effort to understand our body language AND our words. And all of this is despite the fact that human language is not their first language, to say the least. Conversely, people can and should learn to read their dog's postures and signals to better understand what that dog is feeling and what its motivations are. Dogs are social creatures that are accustomed to living in group situations. This is why our affiliation with dogs works so well! While studies differ in their estimates, humans have likely had canine companions for around 32,000 years. and those early relationships served several needs. Canids are adept hunters, have great hearing, are warm-coated, smart and social. Early man quickly learned that a relationship with canids was mutually beneficial. It's also true that those early canids found heat, shelter, access to food, and protection of their young through their relationship with humans. Given the aloof nature of wolves, it is likely that early man selected for individuals who were curious and confident, traits which would bring them into close proximity to humans and also mean that a relationship could be formed. For a relationship to work, however, it must be in the best interest of both parties. For dogs, being around people meant an easier existence in trade for doing things that they already did in their own groups. Which brings us to the modern dog, in all of its odd variations. It is important to note that all of our selective breeding has led to some pretty odd looking canine companions, some of whom we have actually “crippled,” so to speak in terms of affecting their ability to communicate clearly both with each other and with us. For example, docking ears and tail hinders a dog's ability to communicate with people AND other dogs as ears and tail are used frequently when dogs communicate. 

I've often heard owners lament that they wish dogs could talk.  Ah, but they do! Dogs speak, they just don't use verbal language like us. They have a range of vocal abilities AND utilize every inch of their bodies in order to converse. They are incredibly expressive! This combination of sounds and body language is called meta-communication. Humans use meta-communication as well. For example, the use of sarcasm in combination with a sassy facial expression is meta-communication. Basically, we are saying, “just kidding!” Dogs actually do this too. For example, a dog might play bow and then growl and pounce on a playmate. The play bow lets the dog being jumped on know, “hey everything after this is just play and thus meant to be fun!” Without that bow first, the growl and pounce could be perceived as aggressive, just as the sarcasm could be perceived as you being a real jerk without the added, “just kidding!” Thus, meta-communication is all of the nonverbal cues (tone of voice, body language, gestures, facial expression, etc.) that carry meaning and that either enhance or disallow what we say in words. It's that whole conversation going on beneath the surface. Not surprisingly, dogs do this too. 

Dogs learn body language during the first 8 weeks of life and begin testing their knowledge on their littermates. If a dog misses out on this training, he will have trouble communicating his whole life.  It is often the case that dogs who missed out on this end up being the kind of dogs who give mixed signals to other dogs creating tension, anxiety, and aggression. No single posture or expression can be used alone to determine a dog's motivation. You must look at their facial expression, ear set, tail carriage, as well as overall demeanor to determine what they are feeling. 

Dog faces come in many shapes and sizes, but they can still provide you with great information. Dogs are able to vary the shape and size of their eyes. Take that in combination with the direction of their gaze, and its intensity, and you can get a good quick bead on what they are feeling. If your dog's eyes are large and wide it means he is feeling threatened in some way. Your dog's eyes being smaller than normal can also indicate fear and stress....think of the squinty-eyed submissive dog. Dogs rarely look directly into each other's eyes as this is considered threatening. Thus a dog who stares at another dog is being confrontational. Dogs who want to appear less threatening look away, something called gaze aversion. They often stand sideways as well.  Dogs can learn to hold our gaze on command (the watch me, or look at me command) and they will more readily gaze into our eyes than those of other dogs because they have LEARNED that people seek that out. But they most certainly do NOT do it with one another without repercussions. A dog who looks out of the corner of his eye or the whites of his eyes are showing is often a dog ready to have an aggressive outburst. Called “whale-eye,” it is often seen in a dog actively guarding a resource. Remember, a dog may give a sideways glance when resting its head, but this is accompanied by a relaxed posture and therefore the context of the sideways glance is more important than the glance itself.

Dogs position their lips, jaws, and teeth in ways that can communicate a great deal of information about what they are feeling. Is the mouth tightly closed with puckered lips? Staring? Showing teeth? That's scary. Is the mouth open, tongue lolling? That's a happy dog. Is the dog's mouth open slightly in a grin, looking away? Submissive for sure. Add in a flicking tongue, licking the lips, and the dog is actively trying to appease or relieve tension. Add in some exaggerated yawns and you've got a pretty stressed out dog.

While there are a wide variety of ear shapes and sizes, they are still a good gauge of a dog's feelings. Regardless of ear shape, when a dog is relaxed and comfortable, the ears are held in their most natural position for that breed of dog. When the dog is alert, the ears will be higher and directed toward whatever has their interest. Ears back slightly is friendly and a bit submissive, all the way back is scared and may be a precursor to aggression. Ears out to the sides signals conflicted feelings, maybe submissive or frightened, you have to check the rest of the context to be sure.

At this point, we should all know by now that a wagging tail does not necessarily signal a happy dog. Aggressive dogs wag their tails and sometimes happy dogs do not. A dear friend of mine likes to say that you shouldn't use a dog's tail to determine how they are feeling as that is not the end of the dog that bites! Just as with ears, a comfortable dog will hold his tail in the natural position for his breed. Super happy dogs wag their tails forcefully from side to side or even in a circle. Nervous dogs wag their tails low and slow or may even just tuck the tail protectively. An alert or aroused dog has his tail higher than normal and may move it very stiffly if at all (flagging tail). Look at the rest of the dog's body as a flagging upright tail accompanied by ears back, teeth showing, and stiff body posture overall signals imminent aggression. And a fun fact: Research has discovered that when a dog sees someone they like, their tail wags more to the right. With unfamiliar people, the tail wags more to the left. This is another reason why dogs without tails or docked tails are at a disadvantage. They are missing a key body part for proper communication, so people and other dogs may misread what they are saying. And some dogs without tails (or very docked tails) wag with their whole bodies!

Dogs can actually communicate (albeit unintentionally) with their hair. Dogs who are scared or stressed shed profusely in the moment (think of the dog in the vet's office who drops a pound of hair during the visit all over your clothes!).  It is also true that they piloerect (hackling or hair standing on end) when aroused, whether good or bad. This doesn't mean the dog is aggressive or scared necessarily, just aroused. Much like the hair stands up on your arms or the back of your neck when you walk through a haunted house! You will have to look at what else is going on to make a determination of a dog's intent if their hair is up. And then, of course, there is a breed of dog who always has “hackles up,” the Rhodesian Ridgeback! More than once in class, I've had someone tell me that a Rhodesian Ridgeback was posturing aggressively, when in fact the dog had done nothing, other than have that ridge along his back!

Dogs can also make themselves look bigger or smaller, if they are ramping up for a confrontation (bigger) or trying to avoid one (smaller). Happy dogs have a relaxed body posture with their weight equally balanced over all four feet. Playful dogs may be bouncing and running around with greatly exaggerated movements, but their overall expression will be relaxed and natural.

Dogs who are scared are hunched with head held low; they will recoil away from what is bothering them. If still curious, you may see a tentative approach, but flight may still be imminent as evidenced by his back feet in the “ready to flee” position. Submissive dogs look like the scared dog, only they are closer to the ground, may cower, offer a submissive grin, roll over to expose their belly, accompanied by whining and even urinating. An assertive dog appears alert and large. His muscles are tense and it's like he is up on the balls of his feet or slightly forward, ready to engage. An aggressive dog will go for intimidation by adding in direct threats, ready to lunge.

Dogs can add to all of this body posturing with sound. They have a wide range of barks, yips, whines, howls, squeals, etc. What is most interesting to me about the sounds that dogs make is this: Scientists have played back dog sounds to other dogs, without any visual cues, and the dogs hearing the sounds responded appropriately! That is, a dog without any visual cues that hears an aggressive bark will gaze avert, tuck its tail, lick its lips, yawn, try to move away, etc.

While it is certainly possible for dogs to misread the cues they are given by other dogs, it isn't generally the case. More likely, a dog is taking advantage of the cues he is receiving to get the upper hand. Thus, one dog may be offering appeasement in the form of lip licking and gaze aversion and instead of reciprocating with appropriate signals, the other takes advantage of this deference in an attempt to control the situation or even aggress. Even still, if something like this were to happen, the first dog who we will call the appeaser, might try to use displacement gestures like yawning, sniffing the ground, or even sneezing and scratching in order to self calm AND direct the aggressor's attention away from him and diffuse the situation.

Next week's blog will look even more closely at the way dogs communicate with each other and with us.  Such a fascinating topic definitely requires more than one post!

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

This is a client's Saint Bernard.  There is actually a lot going on in the picture!  Ears are tensed and forward on his head.  Gaze is intent and forward as well.  He's laying down, but you can see that he's laying in the sphinx posture rather than a relaxed down. And he has his paw on my foot.  What do you think was going on here?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Dog Park Etiquette

I had a client ask me recently if I'd go to the dog park with her.  She knew that I don't take my own dogs to the dog park, nor am I a big fan of them in general.  You see, the few times I've been to the dog park with clients and their dogs, I have had the discomfort of seeing a lot of bad human behavior on display, as well as both questionable and bad dog behavior.  Turns out, the reason this client wanted me to go with her is that she was experiencing both (bad human behavior AND bad dog behavior)!  I joked that I'd likely need a glass of wine (or a shot of tequila!) afterward, but that I'd be happy to go to the park with her and be her "wingman." 

So, here's what's been happening:  There are between 3 and 8 dogs that regularly visit this dog park.  The owners all know one another and the dogs get along well. There is, however, one couple that comes to the park with their dog that has become an issue.  One of the owners is oblivious to the dog's behavior and the other is embarrassed by it.  It's gotten to the point where the owner who is embarrassed by the dog's behavior, doesn't come very often anymore, sending the oblivious partner and dog to the park alone instead!  This dog owner stands off alone, talking on the phone or looking at it, completely ignoring the dogs.  So what does the dog do?  This dog is a mounter, and a repeat offender at that.  Anytime another dog goes to sniff or play bow, he races over and mounts them.  Most of the dogs sit down, roll over, or try to scoot away, none of them ever even growl at him. The final straw for the dog park regulars was the day a dog was trying to relieve himself and this dog raced over and mounted him mid-squat!  Several of the dogs have gotten to the point where they hide in the bushes to toilet as if they know that if they do it where this dog can see, he'll jump them.  Now, none of these dog owners feel that this dog is malicious, or bullying their dogs per se.  He just doesn't seem to know how to initiate play or interaction and he's never been corrected by the owners or the other dogs for his constant mounting behavior.  The behavior is, however, creating friction at the park and several of the regulars have indicated that they won't be going into the park if this dog (and owner) are there.

I truly understand their frustration.  Years ago when I first started working with Furry Friends, the pet assisted therapy organization I've been with since 1998, there was a dog on one of our off leash visits who constantly mounted other dogs all throughout the visit.  This particular visit was at a local children's shelter, so his over-the-top mounting behavior usually left the kids snickering and in stitches, creating embarrassment and dismay on the part of the other team members.  The owner of the mounting dog wrote off her dog's behavior with a shrug and a "dogs mount all the time, it's not a big deal."  That's when I was asked to come in and resolve this issue for the pet therapy team.  

Yes, mounting IS part of normal dog behavior.  And, yes, dogs do mount each other during play and that's normal.  What isn't normal, however, is the constant mounting of other dogs. To spend an entire hour of off leash time going from dog to dog, mounting them, isn't appropriate.  And believe it or not, it IS possible to get a dog to stop this behavior, even an intact male dog.  

I know I've talked about consequences many times before, but here we go again.  Dogs need to learn that their behavior has consequences. If one of these dogs getting mounted all the time had turned around and growled or snapped at the mounter, the behavior might have stopped, at least with that dog.  The thing is, most repeat offender mounting dogs don't mount dogs that correct them, they go for the more subordinate, go-along-to-get-along-type of dogs. This means that the humans at the dog park need to step in on their dogs' behalf and administer the consequences, if the owner of the mounting dog won't do it themselves.  

The consequence is so easy to do!  Simply go over to the mounter, put them on leash, and walk them away from the other dogs for a 2-3 minute break/time out.  Don't engage the dog during the time out, rather go ahead, stand on their leash, and look at your phone!  When the break is up, unceremoniously unhook the leash and see what happens.  If the dog runs off to mount another dog again, repeat the consequence of a leashed time out, but make the time out period longer for each offense. This routine decreases the pressure felt by the other dogs as they now see that the mounter isn't disrupting their socializing (or toileting!), and it decreases the pressure felt by the humans there as well.  While it truly should be the dog's owner doing the leashing and time outs, I told my client that I wouldn't hesitate to do them myself if that other dog owner was too distracted (or too disinterested) to do so themselves.  And if the owner noticed this and took offense, then I'd let them know that yes, it's true, they should be doing the time outs themselves!  

Circling back to that pet therapy visit where this was happening: When I attended the visit where this occurred regularly, I marched out and leashed the dog for the time outs myself, much to the surprise and dismay of the dog's owner.  She tried to school me, saying this was just normal behavior, to which I schooled her on questionable dog behavior.  Yes, mounting is normal, but in the context of a pet therapy visit, a repeat offender needs consequences, either from the other dogs or the owner.  I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that the dog owner on those visits apologized for being misinformed and began leashing her dog herself for time outs.  This only happened for 3 visits total before the dog quit doing the behavior all by himself, causing everyone on the team at the children's shelter to heave a huge sigh of relief!

So, back to my client's experience at the dog park.  I briefed her on everything above, including explaining what she can say to this other dog owner, if she can get them to take their earbuds out long enough to listen! I don't think she should confront this dog owner alone; my guess is that they will be defensive if she does so.  If the other owner were to come, it would likely be easier to have the conversation with them since they've been embarrassed by the dog's behavior themselves.  Bottom line is this: If I go to the park with my client, I will be bringing an extra leash and I won't hesitate to march over and leash that dog.  And then educate the owner should they mistakenly think that confronting me and calling me out as "ignorant" with regard to dog behavior is a good idea. LOL.  I'll definitely need that glass of wine should that occur!

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Ozzie is a pretty mellow dog with other dogs.  I have him work with me quite frequently, helping clients with their dogs' behavior.  As such, he's been shoved, aggressively sniffed, and even mounted a couple of times.  Usually, Ozzie just walks away from questionable behavior by other dogs, quickly diffusing the situation.  Recently, however, he verbally corrected an adolescent dog for repeatedly trying to mount him during our appointment. Needless to say, the dog backed off after the growl and with Ozzie moving away from him. I told Ozzie that I couldn't have said it to the other dog any better myself!

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The Summer Blues

 I received a call earlier this week from a client I've known for years.  She was sad (and a bit miffed) that their family vacation didn't go quite as well as they'd planned.  They have a lovely home in Tahoe on the lake and had invited some friends to join them there for the week. My client has three great kids and two really sweet dogs.  I've had her children and the dogs in my classes over the years and have really enjoyed working with them.  The family they invited for the week also has kids (much younger than my client's children), but no dogs.  My client thought this would work great as then they wouldn't have to worry about introducing new dogs into the shared space, or be concerned that a new dog might mark, dig, or be destructive in their vacation home.  What she hadn't banked on, however, was the other family's kids being afraid of dogs. Apparently, the other family didn't tell my client about their kids' being afraid of dogs and when they arrived and the dogs rushed up to meet the visitors, "all hell broke loose," as my client described it.  The kids screamed and jumped back into the car, refusing to get out until the dogs were gone.  My client moved her dogs to the yard and hoped that this was just temporary, thinking the kids would get used to her dogs over the course of the day.  Well, that never happened.  The kids remained scared of the dogs during the whole visit, becoming visibly upset even when the dogs were leashed to move about.  My client was very frustrated by this as she wasn't used to leashing her dogs all the time (and neither were her dogs!) and she felt it was unfair of the other family to ask that she keep her dogs outside or in their crates for the remainder of their week's stay. Apparently, my client's husband suggested that maybe her friends would be more comfortable in a hotel, but my client felt terrible even suggesting such a solution as she felt like it would appear that, "I value my dogs' comfort more than my human guests."  Needless to say, the week together was not much of a vacation and there ended up being hurt feelings all the way around.  She was calling me as she wanted to get my thoughts on what she could have done to resolve this issue more amenably.

I did indeed feel bad for my client.  She does have very nice dogs, but kids who are afraid of dogs don't care how nice your dogs are...they are still afraid.  It's impossible to get children over their fear of dogs in just a week, and flooding them with dog experiences isn't going to lessen their anxiety, but is likely to increase it. I told my client that I would have asked about how this family felt about dogs before inviting them to stay for a week.  I would have phrased the ask as "I know your family doesn't have dogs like we do. Is that because someone is allergic?" This would allow the other family to state whether their lack of dogs in the household was due to circumstances, health reasons, or, as in this case, fear of dogs. That way, if someone were allergic (or afraid), alternate arrangements could have been made to ensure everyone's comfort and peace of mind. Asking my clients, whose house you are staying in as guests, to remove their dogs for your visit is an unreasonable request, as far as I'm concerned.  My client's dogs are treated as family; one of the reasons they bought this house in Tahoe was so they could take their dogs on vacation with them! This family could have stayed in a hotel or Airbnb and come over to visit for a period of time each day during which my client would have gladly crated her dogs or had them outdoors, depending on what activities the humans were engaged in.  She wasn't adverse to removing her dogs for a period of time every day, just not for them to be on "house arrest" for the whole week. At one point, the dad in the other family wanted to know why my clients "hadn't left their dogs at home so they could have a real vacation."  For me, this really says it all. This other family doesn't view dogs as family members the way my client does.  It is even likely the case that their kids' fear of dogs is being reinforced by things the parents are saying.  This is sad as there are a lot of families in their community that have dogs and these kids are going to be limited in the houses they can visit and friends they can stay with because of their fear of dogs.  I truly hope that they will seek help for their kids fear of dogs in order to move past this; they don't ever need to have a dog in their family, but their children should be comfortable enough around dogs not to make them a risk. 

My client said she felt better after talking to me and does intend to offer an olive branch to this other family in the form of an invitation out to dinner sans dogs.  I told her that I thought that was a lovely gesture and hoped that it would be well-received.  

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Ozzie and Desi love a good party! 

For my daughter's grad celebration, my dogs were indoors for the majority of the festivities while guests were eating, just to make sure people didn't feel weird about being watched while they were eating! Once it was time to come out to visit, however, they put themselves right in the middle of everything and took advantage of their captive audience.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Won't You Be My Neighbor

I had a client reach out this week about her new neighbors.  They just moved in with their male dog who barks and scratches at the door and gate, barking, any time my client and her dog walk past their house.  And when the new dog was out for his walk, he proceeded to urinate all over my client's lawn and trees, causing her dog to bark from inside the house! My client is a lovely dog owner and she'd really like to relieve some of the pressure between the two dogs, so she asked for my advice.  

All dogs are territorial, some more than others, and it is usually the case that male dogs are more territorial than female dogs.  Having this new dog urinate all over their lawn was an infringement on my client's dog's territory.  I know this dog well, so I'm sure he felt compelled to race out there and re-mark all of those areas!  While most of us (and our dogs) have gotten used to people walking past our houses, letting their dogs sniff and relieve themselves (hopefully, picking up the feces!), there are some dog owners who missed the unspoken etiquette rules about this. First and foremost, don't let your dogs off leash on someone else's lawn.  Don't let that flexi-lead go to it's full length allowing your dog to urinate close to someone's patio, porch, driveway, potted plants, etc. Keep your marking dog to the edges bordering the city sidewalk or path.  There truly is nothing worse that walking out your front door onto your own lawn and stepping in excrement left behind or seeing that someone let their dog urinate at or on the potted plants at your doorstep!

Beyond this, it is important for dogs who share fence lines to meet one another off of home turf.  They don't have to be best friends (though that is nice!), but knowing who that dog is on the other side of the fence will hopefully curb some of the territorial barking that is likely to be occurring. Talk to your neighbors about going for a leashed walk together outside the immediate neighborhood.  If the dogs look like they are getting along, you can even take them to the dog park together to run around in a fenced area off leash. If they are quick to become friends, maybe a few playdates set up in your yard and your neighbor's yard will help curb any overt territoriality between the two dogs. 

It is totally normal for a dog behind a gate or fence to bark when people and/or dogs walk by.  What isn't normal is for the barking to persist past a few barks, or to trigger excessive scratching and digging at the gate/fence. If it's your dog that barks incessantly at passersby, or scratches at the gate, it's time to work on those behaviors!  When your dog barks at the fence, go outside and tell them that you heard the neighbor walk by and then say "Quiet" in a firm voice. If your dog doesn't quiet, go collect them and bring them indoors, redirecting them to another task that doesn't involve territorial vigilance. If you see your dog scratching at the fence or gate, again tell them "Leave It" in a firm voice, and redirect them to another activity.  If the incessant barking and scratching is happening when you aren't home to correct and redirect, then you will need to explore other options for your dog's care when you aren't home to supervise.  It simply isn't fair to your dog or to your neighbors to allow that dog to bark incessantly all day long in a yard. Maybe crating inside would be better, or confining to an outdoor kennel away from the shared fence line works best.  Or maybe your dog would benefit from doggie daycare when you are away from home.

My client has spoken to the new neighbor about a walk together this week, so she is hopeful that her very social dog will make a new dog friend and the territoriality between the two dogs will subside.  Fingers crossed that the neighbor's dog is looking for a new friend as well!

As always, if you have any questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

My granddog, Westley, doesn't bark at passersby or scratch at the doors or windows, but he does like to watch what's going on with a level of constant vigilance.  And, yes, he does re-mark any of those spots on his front lawn that other dogs use!