Let Me Hear Your Body Talk

Your positive training program will go much more smoothly if you’re good at interpreting what your dog is saying to you and communicating to him in a way that he can easily understand. Dogs are, first and foremost, superior body language communicators. They do have the ability to communicate vocally, but they are much more articulate with their subtle body movements, and much more intuitively able to understand ours. As Patricia McConnell says in the introduction of her excellent book, The Other End of the Leash, “All dogs are brilliant at perceiving the slightest movement that we make, and they assume that each tiny movement has meaning.” The students in my classes who tend to be most successful are those who are most consistent with their body movements. Consistency allows your dog to attach a specific meaning (and response) to the movement. The more inconsistent your movements, the harder it is for your dog to connect your random motions to a specific behavioral response. It is becauseof a dog’s use of body movement as a first language that we can train so successfully using lure-and-reward methods and so easily teach hand signals. However, the importance of understanding and responding appropriately to your dog’s body language goes far beyond formal training. Body talk can make everyday life with your dog easier, enhance your relationship, and help you overcome some of the canine behaviors that are giving you grief.
CROSS-SPECIES COMMUNICATION One reason our dogs coexist so beautifully with us is that we are both social species—we live in groups and create social rankings within those groups. Both species intuitively understand the concept of a “group leader” (Pack Leader = Head of Household, Employer, President of the United States); both species have members in their various groups who lead more naturally than others; and in both groups, ranking (or status) is fluid: You might be the head of your household, but subordinate to your father or to a colonel in the Army or your professor at college. Your dog might be the leader of your own personal dog

pack, but he might have very low status among the bunch who play together after your Good Manners class. However, canine and primate body talk have very different vocabularies, which can cause serious conflict between our species. In the canine dictionary, direct eye contact is an assertion or a threat. The dog on the receiving end either (preferably) looks away, a sign of submission— in order to avoid a fight—or takes offense and engages in agonistic (aggressive) behavior in response. The other dog backs off or a fight occurs. This is one reason why so many children are bitten. They tend to stare at dogs, and the more strangely (aggressively) the dog behaves, the more a child stares—exactly the wrong response. Adults who insist on direct eye contact with strange dogs also tend to get bitten. Better to look away when a dog is staring at you with hard eyes than try to stare him down! We naturally face another person we are speaking to, and our force-based culture encourages us to get more strident if a subordinate fails to comply with our requests. We were once taught to call our dogs by standing squarely facing them, arms at our sides, and saying “Come!” in a commanding tone of voice. Our voices got louder, more insistent, perhaps even angry, if our dogs failed to come. Dogs see a full-frontal communication as a threat, and they see loud, firm, angry vocalizations as aggressive. Their natural response is to turn away in appeasement or, at best, to approach slowly in a submissive curve, rather than respond with the speedy, enthusiastic straight-line recall that we strive for. We often reach for our dogs’ collars over the top of their heads. They see this as a direct threat; they duck away in submission (or they bite) and learn to avoid us when we are trying to catch them. We follow or chase them, intimidating them further or, alternatively, teaching them that if they take the lead, we follow. The more we try to catch them, the more they avoid us. We bend over them to pet them on the tops of their heads, or to cuddle them. Again, we are unwittingly offering a posture of threat and intimidation. Primate hovering is a very off-putting posture for dogs. Dogs back away in fear or submission or, worse, bite in an aggressive response. Prompted by ill-advised old-fashioned thinking, some humans still use force (alpha rolls and scruff shakes) to overpower and dominate their dogs. Most dog body language is very subtle and in large part ritualistic, including the belly-up position, which is usually offered voluntarily by the subordinate pack member, not forced by the higher-ranking one. Dogs experience the alpha roll as a violent, terrifying attack, and some will respond aggressively out of a likely belief that they are fighting for their very lives.
Let THE GOOD NEWS If you think about it, it’s surprising that we get along with our dogs as well as we do. The good news is that both of our species are highly adaptable. We can teach our dogs to appreciate some of our bizarre primate behaviors, and we can learn to use canine body talk to our advantage. We humans pretty much insist on hugging our dogs. Touch is so important to us that as much as we may intellectually understand our dogs’ resistance to such close body contact, our hearts overpower our heads and we just have to hug them. Many dogs learn to tolerate, even enjoy this odd human behavior because hugs are often paired with other things that dogs do like—treats, scratches behind the ear, tummy rubs. I hug some of our dogs—and not others. Katie, our geriatric, creaky, arthritic Australian Kelpie, hates hugs. She’s never been snuggly, but now she hurts, which makes hugs even more aversive to her. I don’t even try to hug her. Dubhy, our Scottish Terrier, thinks hugs are okay because they come packaged with tummy rubs, and he adores tummy rubs. I hug him sometimes. Bonnie, our Scorgidoodle (Scotty/Corgi/Poodle), is a total cuddler and can’t get enough hugs. She loves them. I hug her a lot. When a dog reacts badly to being hugged, it’s often an innate response, not a conscious decision. The dog doesn’t sit next to the hugger, ponder his options, and make a deliberate decision to bite. Rather, the hug triggers a subconscious response—“Threat! Fight or Flee!” If the dog can’t flee—because he is being hugged—or is one of those dogs whose fight response is stronger than his flight response, he bites. It’s easiest to teach a dog to accept hugging if you start associating gentle restraint with something yummy when he is very young. Using counterconditioning and desensitization to change his natural association with close contact from bad (Danger! Run Away!) to good (Oh, yay! Cheese!), you can convince the part of his brain that reacts subconsciously that being hugged is a very good thing. To do this, hold the dog at a level of restraint with which he is very comfortable—perhaps just a light touch of your hand or arm on his back. Feed him a tiny tidbit of something wonderful, and remove your hand. Repeat this step until he turns his head eagerly toward you in anticipation of his tidbit when he feels your touch. Now, very slightly increase the intensity of your touch, either by holding your hand on his back longer and feeding him several treats in a row, by pressing a tiny bit harder on his back, or by moving your arm a little farther over his back so your hand brushes his ribs on the other side. The more your dog accepts your touch, the more quickly you will be able to move through the counterconditioning and desensitization process.

Note:Increase intensity of only one stimulus at a time. For example, work on length of time until your dog is perfectly comfortable with long “hand rests,” then shorten the time while you work on increased pressure. When he is comfortable with each new stimulus, add them together. When he can handle more pressure happily, start applying more pressure for longer periods of time. Then ease up on both of these while you work on moving more of your arm over his back. At the same time, of course, it is vitally important to teach children (and uninitiated adults) not to hug dogs unless they know the dog very well and are totally confident that the dog is fully comfortable with such intimate contact. Even then, young children should never be left unattended with any dog. The same approach used to teach your dog to appreciate a hug works with many other culture-clash behaviors. If you want your dog to love having his collar grabbed, pair the action with cheese or a hot dog or chicken. This particular exercise should be taught to every dog. Perhaps youknow that the safest way to take hold of a dog’s collar is gently, under the chin. But if a friend tries to grab the collar over your dog’s head, it would be nice if she doesn’t get bitten for her primate behavior because your dog has learned to accept it. You can also teach your dog that eye contact is a good thing by encouraging him to look into your eyes and rewarding him when he does. (The clicker [see chapter 6] is very useful here.) In fact, we reinforce this behavior strongly in Good Manners training and for obedience competition—we want our dogs to know that direct eye contact is a very good thing and makes lots of good stuff happen. Have your dog practice this with other humans as well as with you if you want him to be comfortable with that pervasive and offensive primate penchant for staring rudely into canine eyes. And remember to teach your children not to stare into a strange dog’s eyes.