Have you ever called back your dog while you’re at home or outside and instead of coming back to you it sniffs around, walking slowly in a curve or perhaps it even sits and looks away from you? For most people this would be the behaviour of a disobedient dog, a bad dog who doesn’t listen to us.
Such incidents are not uncommon, they happen continuously during the course of the relationship between human and dog.
Sometimes a friend or a client will tell me that their dog also likes to get up to mischief. It breaks objects, does its business at home when it remains alone, in short: a real bad dog.
Is this all true? Are dogs really this disobedient? Or, maybe, it’s us not understanding their language?
The point is: Dogs are not bad guys who gets up to mischief. In their minds there is absolutely no concept of doing something out of spite. Dogs simply show a behaviour that is an expression of their inner world: it’s up to us to understand the meaning of that behaviour, it’s up to us to learn their language just as we would learn any other language.
When I moved to Ireland from Italy, the first thing I had to do was to learn English, otherwise I would not have been able to communicate with people.You would do the same if you were to move to another non english speaking country. It is key to our survival in a country other than ours. The same effort should be made to communicate with our dog: it is a being with its own language, made not of words but of movements, expressions, sounds and a lot more that we are not able to perceive.
Dogs communicate with each other using all their senses. They do the same with us but we are unable to understand their language, that’s why we give an erroneous interpretation of their behaviour. We require dogs to learn our own language, ignoring theirs.
During the last decades there have been numerous studies on dog’s language. A very interesting ones was the one conducted by Turid Rugaas, who isolated the Calming Signals in the dog’s language.
Turid Rugaas highlighted in her book “On talking terms with dogs: Calming Signals” how dogs make use of specific postures and demeanors to communicate between themselves and avoid conflict situations.
Let’s make an example: Two dogs, each one unknown to the other, are crossing the same field from opposite directions. Being cognitive subjects they will not cross the field in a straight line. They will both describe a curve while crossing, stopping to smell their surroundings, looking around and at each other, sniffing the air. All this is necessary to enable each one of them to understand who the other dog is, what are its intentions, to say to each other “I am not here to pick up a fight. I have things to do. Let’s keep each to itself and go our separate ways”. They may cross the field, keeping an adequate distance between them, they may even choose not to cross the field and change course. In any case, the two dogs will have used a wide range of calming signals to communicate and, ultimately, avoid a potential fight.
What are these signs?
Turid Rugaas describes a list of signals in her book. Among these signals there are: looking away, licking one’s lips, walking slowly, stretching, yawning, sitting.
More recent and extensive studies, compared to those carried out by Rugaas, show that each one of those calming signal may have multiple meaning according to the context. Licking one’s lips can be used to show a pacific attitude to another dog; at the same time it can be an affiliative gesture when addressed to a member of one’s group. There can be many other meanings, all depending on the subject, the context, the recipient, the audience. For every general rule of behaviour we must always add the uniqueness of the subject in that place and in that moment.
These same signals are used by the dog in communicating with humans: unfortunately this language is for the vast majority unknown and this leads to us reading incorrectly what the dog wants to communicate. Being misunderstood in its communication is a source of great distress for the dog, as it would be for any sentient being.
Let’s go back to our first example: the dog reluctantly answering our call, walking in a curve, sniffing the grass before coming back. Do you still think it’s being a bad dog, wasting our time, or is it trying to communicate something? Maybe it’s trying to communicate that our voice sounds too aggressive because we don’t want to waste a few minute of our precious time for it to enjoy a good sniff around. Maybe it is trying to communicate “I’m coming, just don’t be mad at me”.
Let’s think about when we walk with our dog on a leash and we meet another dog, also on a leash, coming from the opposite direction. The two dogs looks at each other, they slow down, they are trying to maintain a safety distance. We chose to ignore those signals and instead we push our dog so they can socialize or we hurry up to walk past the other dog. This situation often leads to the two dogs barking at each other when they get too close, all because we have not given them the opportunity to communicate properly and to avoid too close an encounter.
This incomprehension of canine language by humans has led many dogs to reduce its usage, either with humans or other dogs. They observed that the use of their own language was ineffective, misunderstood, may have even elicited a scolding by the human, who thought its dog to be disobedient and spiteful. This language atrophy has made many dogs increasingly uneasy as a result, overly excited and even aggressive to other dogs and humans.
After these informations, do you really think you know your dog and his way of communicating with you? Try to shift your point of view to that of your dog. Initially this could cast you into some confusion. You might try to give a meaning to every twitch of its tail. Relax, take the time to observe your dog. Move your point of view from that of a man to that of a dog. When you walk with it give to yourselves the time to observe your surroundings, sniff, dig, explore. Don’t be in a hurry. Imagine walking down the street and stopping to read a very interesting billboard and then someone pulls you away abruptly. Would you like that? Well, that’s what you do to your dog all the time. Its smell is crucial to get informations about the environment, other dogs, anything that can help it increase its knowledge and its inner world. Give your dog and yourself time, I’m sure you’ll both enjoy a fantastic experience. You’ll be amazed by the insights you’ll gain on your dog and those will lead you to understand aspects of its character hitherto unknown to you.
Leave the ball and treats at home, they can become an obsession and distract your dog from making experiences. Do not push it to socialize at all costs. Enjoy your time together, enjoy your walks, enjoy the experiences you can make with your companion. This is the right path to a deep and satisfying relationship for both.
(In this picture Namid and Me during an intense experience on the Learning Dog course that I’m doing. Thank you so much Namid for the strong emotions shared on that day! You have to lose yourself to find yourself.)