This article was published in “Nature’s Corner” magazine:
I’m the proud mom of three wonderful rescue dogs. Each is special and unique; each communicates with me differently. It’s eternally fascinating. Of course, they can’t speak English, my language, so to live together as a happy pack I made it my job to learn as much as I could about theirs.
Potty training was the biggie for me and my guys! Rescues don’t usually come with this skill so working with them on that was essential. We got all three of them at about the same time as we lost both our previous dogs within six months of each other. We decided to adopt right away. Our local shelter had just taken in over 130 dogs from one hoarder so we knew we had to help.
We got potty training down within a couple of months and were blown away at how differently each dog lets us know they need to go out. It’s all to do with communication. And how do dogs communicate? They speak to us with their body language, which is what I’m touching on here today.
Treat Yourself to Training
Learning how to speak “dog” is easy, fun, and super beneficial to all pet parents. Dog training is hip and the best trainers will teach you how to interpret body language as well as the basic commands such a sit and stay. (If they don’t, get another one!) I was a trainer for seven years and truly saved many a poor pup from being returned to the shelter because it was not being understood. Even a little knowledge goes a long way. It’s so valuable.
Thankfully people love to learn about their dogs. As well as local training classes staying busy, celebrity trainers have picked up on the movement and there has been an upsurge of TV shows in recent years featuring adept trainers who help people live in harmony with their pets. There are lots of them online, too.
Cesar Millan, “The Dog Whisperer”, is perhaps the best known of them. He grew up observing dogs as they lived naturally on his family’s farm in Mexico. Over time he became an expert at knowing how to speak their language. Some trainers take issue with his techniques these days but he definitely brought canine communication to the attention of the world.
- Victoria Stilwell is another celebrity trainer. Victoria is a Brit who was featured on TV in the UK then brought her show “It’s Me or the Dog” to Animal Planet here in the States. She champions purely positive dog training.
- Ian Dunbar is a vet, behaviorist, and dog trainer, also from the UK. While he’s not so prevalent on TV, he’s a long-term player in the dog world, and his website dogstardaily.com is one of the best free dog training resources available. Highly recommended.
- Jo-Rosie Haffenden founded The School of Canine Science in the UK. She started as a dog trainer and behaviorist and was featured heavily on TV in the UK. She now teaches people worldwide to become the best trainers out there. Her innovative methods are changing and improving the way dog trainers perform their jobs.
There are many more famous trainers out there, as well as local ones, and each provides us with great insights. But why are we so obsessed with all this today?
How It All Began
Early in human history wolves were slowly tamed to come out of the wild and help man hunt for food or guard his camps. In return, they were given a measure of safety and food they didn’t have to catch themselves. It was a fair trade-off. They were never seen as pets, and communication was minimal.
Over the centuries, however, while some wolves were left to run wild, many of them were domesticated. Different breeds were developed to serve humans in different ways. Some became herders to help us with our sheep and cattle, others helped us track down animals to eat, or find and kill rabbits and mice to protect our crops and homes.
But today things are very different. Our canine companions, their descendants, live in our homes with us and very often become like our children. In this somewhat more unnatural arena for the dog, problems can arise when animals behave like animals and do things we humans don’t like and can’t live with.
So we housetrain them, we teach them not to jump on people, and we tell them they can’t lie on the couch (maybe!). But problems can arise anyway, so we have to find a way to tell our pets what we need from them. And that’s where the trainers come in. They help us see the world through our dog’s eyes, and that’s the only way to truly understand them.
What the Trainers Think
Melony Phillips, an established positive-only dog trainer in Atlanta, tells me we should never put human traits on our pets, even though we treat them as such. “If they have potty accidents in the house while you’re gone, or tear up the furniture, it’s not because they are mad at you because you left them,” she says. “They are incapable of thinking that way. If there’s a problem, there’s a reason for it. What does your dog need that it’s not getting?”
It could be a health issue. If Fido suddenly starts peeing on the floor, he might have a bladder infection. You may need a trip to the vet to check him out. If separation anxiety is rearing its ugly head, look at what might specifically be causing it. For example, if your dog is used to you coming home at a certain time each day, and one day you are late, he’ll get frustrated and find a way to relieve that frustration – possibly in a negative way by chewing something up! If you know you will be late that day, arrange for a neighbor or friend to come over and be with him, thereby averting the problem.
This positive, proactive way of dealing with your pet is far more effective than telling him off for something he doesn’t know is wrong. When that happens regularly, the human-dog relationship can start to go downhill fast, and can end up with the dog being taken to the local animal shelter. No one wants that.
“Being a positive leader will bring great rewards,” says Melony. “If there is something you don’t want your pet to do that is natural canine behavior, being proactive is essential – just redirect them to another activity. If your puppy starts chewing your favorite chair, give him a safe chew toy. It doesn’t make any difference to him, but it sure does to you. He will also learn that certain behaviors get rewarded, while others are associated with negative feelings. He’ll go for the rewards every time.”
Victoria’s Top Tips
To help us understand the human-dog interaction even more, I talked to Victoria Stilwell and asked her how we can
all communicate better with our dogs. These were her thoughts:
- “Take time to understand how dogs view the world. You can’t have effective communication until you do. The most important point is to try and understand your dog’s body language because that’s how they communicate naturally. Observe him in different situations and watch what he does. You can tell a lot by the way his body is positioned. If it is fluid and relaxed, he is calm, happy, and content. If his body freezes or goes still, that is a sign that he is becoming less comfortable.
- “To help you know what to watch for, read, read, and read! Become an expert in all things dog! Learn all about their senses – their smell, vision, and hearing. How they touch, how they greet. All of this knowledge will open up a whole new way of understanding your dog.
- “Create and perfect a vocabulary that you will use with your dog. Write down a list of these words; they should be short and very clear, such as sit, stay, wait, and come. The dog should know exactly which action he should perform when he hears the word. Training and repetition are key factors in his learning process.
- “Be consistent when communicating with your dog – remember he doesn’t talk your language. This is crucial because the dog should never be confused by the words you tell him. Everyone in the household should work together on this.
- “The best kind of owner is the calm and benevolent leader, not necessarily the dominant one. The way you hold your body, your demeanor, your energy, communicates volumes. If you are the nervy type, your dog is likely to be too. If you are relaxed and happy, guess what? He will be. Sometimes it’s just that easy!”
A Legacy of Understanding
This is a huge topic. And this article merely scratches the surface. But if you’re looking to begin understanding your dog better let me also direct you to renowned Californian pet behaviorist and vet Sophia Yin. She died way too early but left a legacy that helps more people than she could have ever realized. She created easy-to-understand posters for families to study to learn about their pets. The posters successfully decode body language in an easy-to-read format consisting of dog drawings. The posters are completely free to download and distribute. Click here to go to the download page. During my time as a dog trainer I handed these posters out to all my students and found them to be of tremendous help.
Why We’ve Got to Tune In
It’s such a shame when dogs are trying to communicate with us using their body language and we don’t understand it. Knowing when a dog is uneasy or stressed can prevent bites. Most bites occur when a dog has warned the person interacting with him or her that he’s had enough, but the human doesn’t pick up on it.
This is especially true with children. So many kids get bitten because they unwittingly push a dog too far. If parents with kids and dogs could teach these simple signs to their children and explain to them what to watch out for, far fewer of them would get bitten, and far fewer dogs would be taken to shelters. It’s that simple. Enjoy this beautiful poster. Print it out. Use it and give it to others. It will most definitely save lives…and many a bite.
Armed with the right knowledge we can live in peace with our pets – and also keep the animal shelter population down. Now that’s something worth striving for.
Wendy Hollandsworth is a freelance copywriter kenneled at Dog Copywriter.
She specializes in SEO and SMO blog posts, website content articles,
product descriptions, and sales emails. When she’s not creating content or
driving sales for someone she is usually taking her three dogs, Finn, Meg,
and Ziggy Stardust, to the dog park or making them a home-cooked meal!
Sometimes her husband gets one too! Visit her kennel any time if you need
help with dog copy for your business. Her Blog is dedicated to understanding dogs.