Dogs are Talking But are We Listening?

Our dogs are talking to us all the time but are we listening? Within the past few weeks I have seen several videos showing dogs communicating in what I regarded as very clear and direct language that they were uncomfortable or upset about their surroundings. In all the videos, the dog’s discomfort was not noticed, not heeded, or not understood.

In my recent post, Dogs Don’t Do Guilt, I discussed why I thought that Denver the Guilty Dog‘s body language was misunderstood as guilt.  Although the post was aimed at dispelling the myth about dogs “knowing” that they’ve done something wrong, the video of Denver has more to teach us than that.

In the video, Denver is confronted by his owner with an empty bag of kitty treats. Denver displays an array of signals that clearly indicate he is under stress and would like the “interview” to stop. The consequences of that “interview” were borne strictly by Denver, but that’s not always the case as illustrated by the following video.

Clearly the consequences here are not limited to the dog alone. While there are many reasons why this particular incident happened, I’d like to focus on one link in the chain. Nobody was listening to the dog.

The handler appears to be in a good position to read the dog’s body language. He seems to have his eyes on the dog although it’s impossible to tell exactly where they were focused. And finally the dog itself gave clear signals that it was uncomfortable with the situation. But it still happened.

If accidents are a chain of circumstances, failures, or bad decisions; removing one link in the chain may help prevent them. I think many would agree that you could build a long chain of poor decisions, poor communication, and poor judgment, leading up to the bite in the video. However, I believe that if the handler had been listening to and respecting the language that his dog was using, the chain would have been broken and the bite would not have happened.

Learning to read our dogs’ body language is so important that I don’t think it can be overstated, but learning to read it is only half the battle. Once we learn to read it we have to learn to respect it. We need to respect what our dogs are telling us and not push them into a situation where they feel that fight or flight is the only option.

Canine body language is a highly learnable subject and once you have a frame of reference, good observational skills are your best ally. If you’ve never read or watched much on the subject, I’ve included a list of books and DVDs at the end of the post. Once you have a frame of reference, I suggest you become an avid dog watcher. Doggy daycare, dog parks, and dog classes are all excellent places to observe canine body language. Learning the native language of your dog not only helps you understand him or her better, it fosters a stronger bond between you.

K9 Body Language Resources:

10 thoughts on “Dogs are Talking But are We Listening?

  1. I’ve seen this video some time back, it was much shorter version … everything about this situation was wrong, patting the dog’s head … and then leaning over him like that? Who’s going to train people how to relate to dogs?

    As for the listening, we are not listening to each other, never mind our dogs.

    • Jana I don’t think that this situation should have occurred in the first place. The handler said he did not know the dogs personality. And the footage of the dog and handler shown before the interview seems to indicate the dog was really amped up. Why let the reporter get that close when you don’t know the dog?

  2. Nice post, Kevin. I’m not a dog trainer, just an owner who is starting to learn more about dog behavior. I could tell Denver wasn’t exhibiting guilt. When I watched this police dog video though, the signs of the dog’s discomfort with the situation weren’t as obvious to me. For people like me (or people who know less than me), can you point out what things you saw that were clues that things weren’t going to go well? And for people greeting a dog, what are the things that a dog does to show that it’s not cool with what you’re doing. Thanks! And thanks for the reading list.

    • Thanks Janine. This was a bad situation from the get go in my opinion. The handler didn’t know the dog and if he advised the reporter on how to interact with the dog, it wasn’t evident from his actions. The reporter did about as much wrong as he could. He was staring directly at Pedro which is a no no with any dog. He repeatedly pat Pedro on the head which may or may not be okay with some dogs but a dog who is trained to subdue people could easily mistake it for an attack upon them. The reporter then grabbed the Pedro with both hands and started to stand directly over him. A very aggressive thing to do.

      It’s hard to see all of Pedro’s facial expressions from the video but signs that are clearly evident are:

      His body posture was leaning away from the reporter.

      Constant tongue flicking and eye blinks indicating his discomfort.

      Several look aways from the reporter.

      Flattening his ears and lowering his body posture especially with the head pats.

      You can start to see a bit of a “whale” eye on him before the bite. Indicating real discomfort and possible aggression coming.

      I hope you find this helpful Janine and I am glad you are taking the time to learn more about dog behavior. It really is a fascinating and rewarding thing to learn.

  3. That poor dog was doing everything but holding up a flashing neon sign in attempt to say he was uncomfortable with the situation: tongue flicks, whale eye, mouth tense and commisure puckering forward.He glanced toward his (clueless) handler and tried to shrink his body away from the reporter repeatedly and if you look closely you can also see that telltale wrinkling near his nose several times before he feels pressured enough to bite.
    Then the handler goes on about “dominance” and being “pack leader.” Aaarrgghh! It should be a requirement that all K-9 handlers take at least one seminar with Steve White (who uses positive reinforcement , dog-friendly teaching methods with working dogs.)
    Sorry about the rant. It just kills me when people say a bite “came out of nowhere.”

  4. I have watched this video many times – always with the sound off – and imho, the fault lies not only with the handler but the handler’s Instructor and the method of training!! This handler may have been watching the dog, but he quite obviously had NO idea what he was seeing because he clearly has no understanding of canine body language. Whether or not he knew the dog’s personality really isn’t the issue – an aware and observant handler would have picked up immediately on what the dog was communicating and not allowed this scenario to deveop at all.

    • I don’t know if the handler was just “dazed” by the fact that he was on TV or that he just didn’t know about body language. But clearly the language was ignored. I was also taken by the fact that the handler would allow the reporter to do what he did. The close proximity of the two men along with the rude actions of the reporter should have caused the handler to stop the interview and give a bit better instruction to the reporter on how to interact with the dog.

  5. Am i wrong in thinking that if the handler needed to keep the close leash on the dog for the interview, that he was not confident of the dog’s ability to self restrain?? Look at the video at time:035. You will see the handler inch his hand up to make an even shorter leash and slightly pull on the collar as if he thought something might happen!! He appears unsure of how the dog will react and seemed to be preparing for the worst.

    • Then I guess my question would be why did they do the interview in the first place if they were unsure of the dog? Why allow the reporter to be in such close proximity to the dog? And of course with the dog giving clear signals he was uncomfortable, why not stop the interview and start again with some better ground rules for the reporter? Even with the handler having such a short leash on the dog, with the reporter that close how are you supposed to prevent it from happening?

Comments are closed.