For me, one of the most thrilling parts of being a dog trainer is the feeling (when it’s going well) that you’re really communicating with the dog that you’re training. It’s a feeling like no other, and when you’re ‘in the zone’ with your dog it’s a wonderful thing to experience.
The dog is really understanding me. I am ‘asking’ for what I would like, helping them to understand how to achieve this, and then helping to ingrain this as part of our dialog for the future to come.
I am 100% sure that I am not alone, and this kind of ‘connection’ isn’t as difficult as it seems to achieve. I have no doubt that everyone reading this will have experienced moments with their own dog where they ‘knew’ that their dog understood them – that’s kind of what really good training is anyway, isn’t it?!
But have you ever stopped to think if we are understanding what they are saying back to us?
How well do we, as a nation of over 60 million people, understand what dogs are telling us?
Do we know where to look?
As human beings we are programmed to pay a good deal of attention to language and words to communicate – it’s how we have conversations, how we express love, how we argue with our siblings and how we communicate on blogs such as this.
Dogs by comparison are far less focused on audible communication.
It’s true that dogs make a wide range of noises – some don’t make many, whereas some are veritably conversational. However if we really want to ‘hear’ what our dogs are saying, we need to use our eyes.
Canine body language is as fascinating as it is beautifully expressive. It can tell us the blissful joy of a rescued dog splayed over ‘his’ new sofa, or the heart warming ‘full body wag’ of our dog welcoming us home from work.
Alternatively it can tell us less happy, but even more important things.
It can tell us when our dogs are worried. Stressed. Scared. Unsure. Anxious. Not just one shade of these emotions either. A spectrum of emotions can be conveyed from the subtlest signs, to the most vehement protests. Some of these signs may surprise you.
I hope that they do, because the more memorable the lesson, the more chance that it won’t be forgotten.
In this blog, I want to talk about (and look at!) some crucial things that our dogs are saying to us, in the hope that we will be able to listen to them, and more importantly respond to what they tell us in a kind and compassionate way.
A lot of these pictures may seem subtle, but that is exactly the point, these are often our dog’s ‘whispers’ to us – telling us that they aren’t happy. These are the communication equivalent of the 90% of the iceberg below the surface that often go ignored, chuckled at, or even encouraged.
These are the whispers that, if they are not heard, can often lead to our dogs needing to ‘shout’. Either literally by barking in anger or fear, or through growls, lunges, snaps and unfortunately, bites.
So why am I talking about this today? Well, if you were to take the response to ‘viral’ videos, cute GIFs and ‘touching’ photos as a reflection of our general knowledge of dog communication as a population, we may want to look again.
Here’s a few examples:
Many of you may not have heard of the term ‘whale eye’. In other words its the distinctive gaze of a dog where the whites (or sclera) of their eyes are visible. This can be a subtle sign that your dog is not comfortable. In the pictures below you can see the whites of the eye clearly visible – the dogs don’t look too happy in general either do they!?
So with all of that in mind – knowing that when you see this signal in a dog it might feel uncomfortable, worried, like it wants whatever is happening to stop – how do you think this dog is feeling?
With that answer in mind…how does the full picture make YOU feel?
Like us, dogs yawn when they’re tired – but unlike us, dogs also yawn to show discomfort, worry, uncertainty or low levels of fear. If your dog hasn’t just woken up, or isn’t snoozing on the sofa, it is likely that yawn is being caused by something unsettling to the dog, not a lack of sleep!
Now with this new knowledge, apply it to this picture and tell me how this dog is likely feeling?
So what does the full picture tell you?
Dogs aren’t perpetually hungry (well, depends if you have a Labrador or not!) – at least they aren’t always hungry when they lick their lips. Indeed, dogs lick their lips incredibly often, and very often when having a camera pointed in their faces! However, a vast array of unsettling and worrying things can cause a ‘lip lick’ – and if you see your dog doing this, it is very likely that something is making him or her feel uncomfortable.
So, you know the game by now…how is this dog feeling?
So, is it just me that actually finds the full picture rather terrifying?
Lastly the classic ‘guilty’ look of a dog ‘who knows they have been ‘naughty”. Apart from the over use of apostrophes, the last sentence is rubbish. There I said it. There is no proof that dog’s understand the complex human concepts required to ‘know’ that they have been naughty by chewing your sofa when you left them alone for 8 hours, and then to feel guilty about doing it.
Instead, they are just what they look like – scared.
Either because your tone and body language upon returning home are worrying, unusual and slightly (or less than slightly) imposing and aggressive. Or maybe because the last time you came home you shouted at them too (because their separation issues haven’t been cured in a day) and they are probably worried because they fear another telling off is coming their way.
Remember, not guilty, just scared. Is that how we want our dogs to feel?
These dogs above, 3 of which are dogs that have just been rescued off of the streets, to me look scared, worried and sad. Just like this dog below.
So the full picture gives a different perspective to the cute and funny ‘naughty dog’ don’t you think?
So that’s it, a whistle-stop tour through some key dog communication signals, and how the popular media often misrepresents them as cute, endearing, naughty, hungry, tired or tolerant. In reality the dogs aren’t feeling any of the above. They are likely uncertain, worried, scared, unsure and all of these emotions and feelings can be the precursor to levels of ‘aggression’ that humans actually understand.
So the next time you see a picture with a child hugging a dog, have a look at what the dog is saying. Is it displaying any visible signs of discomfort? If so it is likely the dog will suffer in silence or feel the need to increase the communication levels to something more dramatic. If this does happen, the likelihood of someone, especially a child getting hurt is increased, and the future for the dog would not look too rosy either! All of this because of being unable to hear what our dogs are telling us.
By understanding when our dog feels uncomfortable, we will be more equipped to stop, take an assessment of what could be worrying our pet, and remove the dog from that situation, or stop what we (or our children) are doing that may be causing the worry in the first place.
Remember our dogs are talking to us all of the time – if we are all a little more able to understand what they are telling us, we will be able to understand their whispers, and protect them from ever having to shout in the future.