This month I asked my good friend and incredibly talented dog trainer Russell D Russell to give me the low down on what our dogs really mean when they react to our behaviour.
Luckily he was there to help me when Bob was young as before we got him I really didn’t understand much about dogs except that I loved them.
In this guest post, Russell shares five of the biggest misunderstandings us pet owners have when it comes to communicating with our canine friends.
You can find out more about Russell on his website https://www.caninepointacademy.com/ or over on his Facebook or IG pages.
Friendly v Social
We’ve all been there. Out for a quiet walk with your dog, when from over the horizon another dog is charging towards you. Somewhere further back, there’s an owner shouting “Its ok, he’s friendly!’ There are a few potential issues with this.
Firstly, that phrase, “It’s ok, he’s friendly!”, is simply code for, “I can’t control my dog, and couldn’t call him back if I wanted to”. So if you’re in this situation, you already know the dog that’s approaching you is likely out of control. Secondly, we also know that the owner of this loose cannon fur ball has no idea about Canine social skills.
How do I know that? Well, telling me “It’s ok, my dog is friendly”, clearly doesn’t address the burning question of “What if mine is NOT friendly?”. Having a dog that is friendly, is one thing, but having a dog that is ‘social’ is quite another. If you think about this in human terms, when we meet new people, there are certain socially acceptable rituals that we go through – including maintaining respectful distance and personal space, eye contact, handshakes, and polite introductions.
This is both social and probably friendly. However, if you act with a complete stranger, how you act with your best friend when you’re both drunk, then you’re probably not being particularly social – no matter how friendly you’re being – and the person you’re engaging with, probably won’t appreciate it. The same is true for dogs.
It’s fear, not guilt
One thing I hear A LOT from owners is “But he KNOWS he’s guilty!” And for the most part, this is quite untrue. The dog in this equation is probably clueless as to what the problem is. “But but but….” yes, I hear you and I know what you’re going to say.
However, understand that dogs are hugely perceptive to body language, it’s one of their primary communication techniques – not just with other dogs, but with us too. Dogs generally do things in the moment, that they find satisfying – such as sleeping on the sofa, playing with a toy, or yes, chewing your shoes.
At the time, it was super fun – they don’t distinguish between toys and shoes, it was just something there. The problem arises when you come home, or walk in from the other room and see the devastation, the act of which was committed some time ago. You then become angry, frustrated and feel the need to convey this unhappiness to the dog.
The dog meanwhile is just chilling out, minding his own business when he notices you walking towards him, and looking particularly ‘off’. He’s aware that something is wrong, clearly from your body language – however, his response of tucking himself up, dropping his tail, flattening his ears, and maybe even raising a paw or rolling over – is NOT the signature of guilt that YOU see, but more a deflection tactic to say “Hey! You look proper peeved, and I’ve no idea why.
So let me just show you that whatever it is, it isn’t me, I’m not the threat here, I’m all good…”
This is a hugely common thing among most dog owners, and if I’m honest, myself included 🙂 We talk to our dogs, we have genuine conversations with and we read the answers we want from them. “Do you love me Fido?” – as Fido stares back with big brown eyes and a wagging tail….”Of course you do!”. Another satisfied human. Job done…
One can argue the benefits and pitfalls of this all day, however in a lot of cases and a lot of the time, its probably pretty harmless – but not all the time. And sometimes, humanising our dogs, imparting human emotion on them, and expecting a human response, can be traumatic and lead to quite serious consequences.
I’m not saying you can’t have 1 on 1 meaningful conversation with your dog (they’re the best) but we do need to remember they are dogs, not humans, and we need to treat them accordingly. That means training them, learning about their behaviours, and what drives and motivates them. It means engaging with them in a manner they can understand from a dog perspective, not a human one
Dogs love hugs
So many clients tell me how much their dogs LOVE cuddles, and honestly, sometimes it worries me. Why? Because simply put, dogs as a general rule do NOT like hugs, and cuddles and being squeezed.
Now wait, I can hear you screaming already – I’m sure you ‘think’ your dog loves it and in fairness, there are some that genuinely seem to love having the air damn near squeezed right out of them – but these dogs are rare. Most dogs, whilst quite happy with some fussing and petting, tend to tense, or try to avoid being held and squeezed – its not a comfortable thing for them. It’s also very different from the family pet than the unknown dog.
It always amazes me that people seem surprised their new friend comes to the house, and expect their dog (who has otherwise, never met this new person) to just be affable and easy-going with the newbie. But it takes time to build trust – the same as it does when we meet new people.
Sure, we can extend the ‘benefit of the doubt’ to new people, but we may hold off on the hugs… 😉 Also, the danger can be when children are left with dogs and allowed to grope, hold and squeeze them – for they won’t see the warning signs. If the dogs are tensing up or trying to look away, moving their heads to the side, chances are they want to be left alone. If you see the whites in the dog’s eyes quite prominently, then let go and back up – for you are crossing a threshold. And just because your dog growls at this stage, doesn’t mean they’re a ‘bad’ dog and need to be punished.
They’re basically saying, “Hey, I’m super uncomfortable at the moment, please help!”. Our job should be to help our dog, and stop whoever is near them from hugging them or taking their personal space.
Obedience is only for naughty dogs
So many people seem to think that doing any sort of obedience training is only required for dogs that are “out of control” or “constantly naughty”. However, the reality is, without any sort of training, your dog is probably going to be “out of control” and “constantly naughty!”. Obedience training is so much more than just sit, lie down and stay.
It’s about understanding, and overcoming the communication gap between you and your dog. It’s about creating consistent routines, and behaviours for your dog that YOU want, and he wants to do because it’s rewarding. And by starting early, with a puppy, you’re basically teaching them all the right things from the start, before they’ve had any chance to learn the bad.
Otherwise, they just learn lots of bad habits that they have to spend time “unlearning” later on. Start off on the right paw, and train your dog from the start!
Check out Canine Point