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: