Thursday, February 6, 2014

Do You Know What Your Dog is Really Trying To Tell You?

Our Dogs. They are for many of us a constant companion by our side. For others they may be valued more so for duties, that can only be completed by none other than the dog himself. But as we share our day to day lives with these one of a kind creatures, who scientists now believe may have began co-existing with humans over 15K years ago, we must ask ourselves if we really know our dogs as well as we think we do.

Dogs are generally social animals, meaning they often live in a group, pack or family, therefore making clear and effective communication a vital role in their ability as a species and as an individual to survive & evolve. Communication serves many important factors in our dogs day to day lives, including conflict resolution as well as a dogs ability to gain access to resources they want or need on a day to day basis. (Resources are anything & everything an individual dog may desire, such as food, water, toys, attention, etc).Although there is ongoing and fascinating research that is leading many top researchers in the field of canine cognition to believe that dogs are evolving to be “expert human behavior observers and manipulators”, dogs have yet to evolve to the point in which they communicate primarily through vocalization, which is ironically the way we as humans tend to try and primarily communicate with our dogs. Dogs primarily communicate through a series of artful, yet often subtle to the human eye, movements and body postures.

One of the most fascinating aspects of dog behavior, is the dogs ability to literally regulate stressful, exciting or over stimulating situations for themselves by using a series of what are called “Calming Signals”. Have you ever noticed your dog randomly doing a “shake off” (literally shaking his whole body, as if he just took a bath) after something exciting or maybe even something stressful happens? He may also, in these situations offer behaviors such as yawning, licking his lips, turning his head (looking away), stretching, randomly sniffing or scratching, or maybe even raising his paw.

These behaviors can be indicators that your dog may be feeling overwhelmed by a certain situation.

One behavior that is somewhat misunderstood, but is gaining a new understanding in the field of dog behavior research, is the tail wag. When your dog wags his tail, does that mean he is always happy?

While some wags are indeed associated with happiness, and positive emotions, other tails wags can indicate stress or fear. The newest research on this topic, has shown that a dog who wags his tail with a bias to the right, is generally in a more positive emotional state, while a dog who wags his tail more so to the left may be in a more negative emotional state. As well as the direction of the tail wag, look for specifics as to how high or low your dog may be holding his tail. Is it tucked tightly between his legs but slightly wagging? This may mean he is nervous. It is held very high & stiff with a slight but quick wag? This could mean he is on high alert, but not necessarily always mean he is “happy”. The best indicator that a tail wag is intending to communicate a friendly interaction, is that the tail is wagging in big swoops, set at half mast, usually accompanied by a loose body.

One point that I try to leave with all of my clients as I work with them to help resolve problems or teach their dog new behaviors, is that as much as we as the dogs owner want our dogs to “obey” and respect us, we must first respect and understand our dogs, in order to expect that our dogs will return the favor.

by Heather Polechio, CPDT-KA, CTC. MindfulMutz Training & Behavior Consulting.

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