There's a famous quote by Orhan Pamuk I've always loved and that I've used as an intro slide for my seminars on dog body language and communication. Here's the quote: "Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen." So, why am I bringing this up now? Glad you asked! You see, knowing how to listen to dogs is a skill we can all use and one we can hone, becoming better at it the more we lean in to what our dogs (and other people's dogs) are telling us. Here are a few examples where listening to dogs aided me in guiding their owners to the appropriate solution.
The Problem: My Dog Hates Putting On His Leash. I asked the owner to show me. He reached for his dog's collar to hook on the leash, and as he did so, I saw the dog wince and turn away. I asked the owner to stop and give the dog a moment. The dog licked her lips, scratched at her collar, and then gave a full body shake before looking at me intently. I took the collar off and put a simple harness on the dog. She didn't resist the harness, instead showing interest as I offered her treats while I fitted it properly. I attached the leash without issue to the front of the harness; the dog did not wince, look away, or show any other signs of distress. We walked out the front door, and around the block without any issues, until I handed the leash to the owner. Now the dog began looking back at her owner, licking her lips when he pulled on the leash. I had him stop, hand me the leash, and watch me walk his dog. I gave her enough leash to sniff, redirecting her with my voice and treats rather than pulling. When we got back to their house, I removed the leash without issue. Then, I asked the owner to observe closely as I removed the harness. When I pulled the harness over the dog's neck, I applied a small amount of pressure. She stiffened, winced, and looked away. I stopped let her scratch and shake, and then I offered her treats while I widened the harness and lifted it away from her neck. She was fine. Have you figured out what this dog was saying? She was saying her neck hurt; the leash attached to the collar made it worse. Pulling on the leash on walks with her made it infinitely worse, to the point where she didn't want to go for walks. I recommended a trip to the vet to see if there was more to her neck pain and lo and behold, she had early disc disease in her neck. The solution? Anti-inflammatory medication and walks on a loose leash with a soft harness, no collars. Pain is often the reason a dog is behaving in a "stubborn," "confrontational," or "reactive" way. Rule out pain first.
The Problem: My Dog Gets Nervous Around Other Dogs. I asked the owner to meet with me at a local park at a time when the park would be little used. I told her that I would bring one of my own dogs to use as a "trigger" so that I could observe her dog and make recommendations. I figured that way, the owner would feel less stressed about meeting, knowing that the dog her dog would see would be one of my trusted collies. I brought Desi for this appointment since he is incredibly relaxed and refuses to engage other dogs who bark, whine, or pull toward him. I saw the client standing with her dog as I pulled up in my car. She looked really stressed out to me, with her leash so short the dog's front feet were practically off of the ground! I unloaded Desi and asked him to sit next to me; we were about 30 feet away from the client and her dog at this point. I waved and smiled and gave her a greeting, letting her know that Desi and I were going to approach. I also asked her to either loosen up on that leash or stand on it instead so I could better observe her dog. She loosened it about 3 inches, but the leash was still taut and the dog was still straining. I stopped, had Desi sit again, and asked her to go ahead and just stand on the leash. She began to panic and indicate that she didn't think that would be safe for her dog or for Desi. I reiterated that we'd be fine and just give it a try. I could see she wanted to resist, but she dropped her leash, standing on it, giving the dog about 2 feet of leash to work with. I coached the owner to unfold her arms and either keep them at her sides or behind her back. She fisted her hands at her sides, something her dog was clearly watching! I reiterated that she needed to also be relaxed, so I had her take a couple of deep breaths, roll and square her shoulders, then tuck her arms behind her back. Desi and I started walking toward them again, passing within about 6 feet. Lo and behold, her dog leaned toward us with curiosity, not reactivity, nor was he fearful; he was intrigued! I pointed all this out to the owner and encouraged her to reach down and give her dog a treat. She had told me he won't take treats on walks, he's so nervous, but guess what? He ate that treat. Desi and I moved past and around these two about a dozen times, until the point where I could clearly see that the client had relaxed; her dog had relaxed from almost the moment she'd dropped the leash and stood on it. Now we were getting somewhere! The rest of the appointment was spent walking past one another, coaching the client out of her own way, and eventually walking together with our dogs to the car. Turns out that the client's previous dog was attacked by another dog while they were out on leash and she basically had PTSD from that incident. This current dog had never had a negative encounter with another dog, let alone ANY encounter with another dog. He had been nervous/fearful because his owner was; she cued the vigilant behavior by shortening the leash, keeping it taut, and being tense herself. Once she learned to relax and stop cuing the anxious behaviors, her dog relaxed too. Her homework? Invite her friends with nice, friendly dogs to walk with her so she could continue to boost her own confidence on walks. Listening to dogs often means watching their owners to see what the dog has been experiencing.
The Problem: My Dog Hates Our New Baby. The clients had reached out because their dog had growled and snapped at their 3 month old baby. Turns out this dog had never liked children and the owners had been good about keeping him away from kids on walks and crated when their friends and family came to visit with children before their baby was born. I asked them what made them think that the dog would be okay with them having a baby in their home 24/7. Their response? They just figured that if it was THEIR baby, the dog would be fine. As you might have guessed, that's not how it works. Dogs either like kids or they don't. They aren't ambivalent about it and you most certainly must use past behavior as a predictor of future behavior. If your dog is afraid, avoidant, reactive, or aggressive toward other people's children, there is no reason not to hear them and believe what they are telling you. They are telling you that they don't like kids. And if they've snarled, growled, snapped, lunged, nipped, or bitten your child, that's all the information you need to know that the dog and your child are not safe together in the same home. Since you can't rehome your kids, you need to rehome the dog to a home without children/grandchildren. There is nothing I can do to make your dog love your kids other than listen to your dog and guide you to find them a more suitable, less anxiety-provoking living arrangement.
Dogs really do tell us a lot with their body language and behavior, we just have to stop and watch them. More importantly, we must be as impartial as possible; any good scientist will tell you that you have to be impartial to get good data. If you see your dog gaze averting, licking its lips, yawning, etc. when one of your friends comes to visit, listen to your dog. They are telling you that they aren't comfortable with that person. Don't force them to interact with that person; don't give your friend treats to give your dog as that will only reinforce their anxiety and belief that you don't hear what they are saying. Instead, have your dog stay in another room or their crate with something fun to do when your friend comes to visit. Ask your friend to ignore the dog. Your dog will thank you. And bottom line, if your dog is usually quite friendly and solicitous with new people, but suddenly takes a dislike to someone you know, LISTEN TO THEM. Dogs are very good at reading people; it's what they do all day, everyday. I've said it many times: If Desi doesn't like someone, I'm pretty sure they must be suspicious in some way as Desi truly does love everyone. There's a neighbor he avoided interacting with and I heeded that information and I watched that neighbor. And you know what? He was right. That neighbor was not a nice person, nor were they nice to animals.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.