Dog speak: canine body language

While dogs are highly intelligent, emotional, and expressive creatures, we can sometimes forget that they can be subtle in their communications as well. Very well-trained, patient dogs can tolerate a lot of things that we do with them and to them, but even though a good dog lets you do something doesn’t mean that he or she necessarily likes it. If a dog doesn’t appreciate what you are doing, more than likely that dog will be giving you subtle cues about how he or she feels. The question is are you able to interpret your dog’s behavior?

There are many reasons why it is important to interpret canine behaviour, but one of the most is dog bite prevention. I see so many pictures, videos, and memes on Facebook and Instagram, showing a dog and often a young child and a funny caption. Often the child is hanging on the dog’s neck, or kissing the dog, or doing something cute that puts the two in close quarters. I mean, what can be cuter than dogs and children, right?

What’s not so cute is that these dogs are often desperately signaling that they don’t like what is going on, and the child, and probably the person taking the picture, doesn’t understand what their dog is gently trying to say to them. Unfortunately, if ignored, the dog can progress to snarling, snapping, or biting to get the point across. To avoid escalation, when you see a dog exhibiting this behaviour, stop whatever you (or your child) is doing with the dog.

In the beginning, before behaviour proceeds to snarling or biting, dogs give more subtle cues that he or she is not having fun, is fearful, and most importantly, and wants you to stop whatever you are doing.

When a dog doesn’t want you to touch her, the first sign is that she moves away. For example, if you are trying to fit your dog with a head halter, a harness, or a jacket that goes over the head, and your dog moves her head away from the equipment, then she does not like it, and is trying to tell you. Now, you can use force, and force her to wear her head halter, but in doing that, you are ignoring the body language she is sending you, and reinforcing that putting on the head halter is not fun or enjoyable.

If this happens, you need to do is turn the action into a game, and get your dog to solicit the head halter by reinforcing fun and pleasure with treats. First, play with your dog by running through a couple of behaviours that she knows to get warmed up: sit, lay down, touch, etc. Next, let your dog sniff the head halter. If she won’t come near it, sweeten the deal with treats. If it goes well, quickly put the head halter on your dog’s, and then remove it. Then have a party and treats!! Repeat this action over and over, and more than likely, your dog will start to solicit the equipment touching her nose, because she knows that treats and fun will follow soon after.

The final step is to snap the equipment in place, give some treats, and then take dog for a walk to reinforce that good things happen in conjunction with the equipment. Take treats along in a baggie to give them along the way. As an aside: dogs can develop an aversion to head halters if the person handling the dog consistently jerks or pulls on the lead. In addition, I always recommend working with a veterinarian or trainer if you are having difficulties training your dog.

The next time you are interacting with your dog, watch for the subtle head movement behaviour. It will let you know how your dog feels about the activity, and how to help your dog have more fun!

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