Interpreting Dog Behavior

The more I work with dogs and other dog pro­fes­sion­als who tip-toe a thin behav­ioral line on a daily basis, the more appre­ci­a­tion I have for dogs and their art­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion style.  Learn­ing to read “dog” is like learn­ing a for­eign lan­guage.  It takes years of being immersed in “dog” and speak­ing with hun­dreds of dogs to become fluent.

No rea­son to be intim­i­dated though.  Learn­ing how to be polite is pretty sim­ple (Excusez-moi?).  Read­ing “For the Love of a Dog” or “The Other End of the Leash” by Patri­cia McConnell is a great place to start.  Here are some other tips to get you started on your jour­ney into the world of “dog”.

Think “What would a human do?”, then do the oppo­site.  Human-to-human com­mu­ni­ca­tion is pretty much on the other end of the behav­ioral spec­trum of what is polite for dogs.  For dogs, eye con­tact is rude.  Approach­ing the front of an ani­mal is rude.  Touch­ing the head or face is rude.  Vocal­iz­ing while approach­ing is rude.  Lean­ing, leer­ing, or reach­ing out is rude.  Us humans how­ever greet by ver­bally acknowl­edge each other in a loud exu­ber­ant voice while mak­ing eye con­tact, then directly approach the front of the per­son, end­ing in a firm hand shake while main­tain­ing eye con­tact.  That is pretty much a night­mare of a greet­ing for a dog.  Butt sniff­ing, how­ever, is very polite.

A chain of dogs bum-sniffing

Bit­ing is part of “dog”. Thank­fully, among the mil­lions of peo­ple and count­less dogs bit­ten every year, only a tiny per­cent­age of those bites result in any real dam­age.  We hear hor­ror sto­ries on the news but those instances are extremely rare.  This is because most dogs have acquired bite inhi­bi­tion, mean­ing they know how to bite and fight with­out doing any real dam­age.  “Bite” is part of a dog’s lan­guage.  We should respect this and thank them for using restraint in the many awk­ward, uncom­fort­able, and con­fus­ing sit­u­a­tions human soci­ety brings.

Dog behav­ior is com­pli­cated.  Oh how us train­ers and behav­ior­ist bemoan the so often repeated “if the dog’s tail is wag­ging it’s friendly” advice.  Here is a video of ter­ri­ers hunt­ing a rat.  The lit­tle ter­rier in the middle’s tail wags enthu­si­as­ti­cally the whole time but would you call his inten­tions towards the rat “friendly”?.  I would say not.  **Viewer dis­cre­tion advised  There is a lot more going on here than just a tail wag.  This dog is tar­get­ing, hard star­ing the spot where he thinks the rat may be, freez­ing, and his weight is on this front indi­cat­ing he is ready to jump into the action.  In this case the tail wag sim­ply means the dog is very excited… about get­ting the chance to kill a rat.

So what’s a dog owner to do?  Get to know your dog.  How our dogs react to to oth­ers will tell us a lot.  Then, before you hit the dog park or play­group, read Tips for Safe Dog Inter­ac­tions.  Lastly, take a deep breath and relax.  For most well-rounded dogs, one or two bad inter­ac­tions at the dog park or with a less than dog-savvy human vis­i­tor will be for­got­ten with a few treat-heavy train­ing sessions.

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