We often fail to employ subtle feedback to our dogs. We do not start with stillness, a closed mouth, and head turn. Often, we begin where a dog will end up, with grabbing, shaking, and shouting.
Dogs have a natural way of telling others that they need more space.
For example, an adult dog is resting in their preferred space chewing on their chosen toy. The puppy approaches, planning to invite the older dog into a play session. The older dog pauses, closing their mouth, turning their head down and across the toy. The message is clear, this is mine, I am not up for sharing, please move away.
If the puppy ignores this subtle gesture, the older dog has no choice but to escalate up into a soft short growl. Still pup approaches then onto a lip lift (“remember I have big teeth little one”) into a full, scary, air snap which finally causes the pup to retreat.
Hopefully puppy gets the message loud and clear and stays away, lesson learned ‘do not approach a dog that is comfortable in its own space with a possession’. However, if the pup does not understand or chooses to test the learning, then the older dog may have to be louder and clearer, with a full front teeth display, hackles up, and a deep sustained growl.
As humans we find this normal dog to dog communication uncomfortable, but the function is not to injure each other, rather to decrease the likelihood of the behaviour happening again.
The older dog is asking for space from the younger dog and next time the socially intelligent pup will notice the early subtle signs of communication and back off before experiencing the more unpleasant consequences. Learning has occurred.
As the young dog learns to read the older dog more accurately, the stillness and head turn will be sufficient warning.
As people we often fail in our ability to recognise that our dog is asking for more space. We fail to protect them, move them away or get between them and another dog. Trust in our ability to manage the outside environment on their behalf erodes and dogs need to take matters into their own hands with displays of barking, lunging and biting.
We often fail to employ subtle feedback to our dogs. We do not start with stillness, a closed mouth, and head turn. Often, we begin where a dog will end up, grabbing, shaking, shouting.
We forget that young dogs or dogs that have never lived in a family home need time to figure out human body language.
From their point of view we swing from not bothered, to furious response without warning. The dog is forced to react to our aggressive, scary, body language, and from their perspective they are fighting for survival. Over time this damages our relationship, the dog learns not to trust us and that it is safer to avoid. At the same time we are seeking a dog that comes back in the park, sits when asks and walks with us on a lead, all of which require a good relationship, we have a dilemma.
We can become better teachers by taking time to observe how our dogs communicate, looking for those subtle communications and responding accordingly. A dog that growls at you, doesn’t need to be ‘put in their place’, they need us to step back. From here we can be curious about what led up to the growl and work out how we can improve our communication or management to prevent the growl happening again. The growl is the first behaviour we tend to notice because that is the moment when we feel unsafe, but with practice we can begin to observe the first signs that our dogs need more time or space. We can learn to spot a mouth closing, a pause in approaching, a turn of the head, a paw lifting, a step back. We can take these as a cue to change our own behaviour. .
From my experience once dogs learn that you understand these subtle signs, their confidence and trust in you grows, they become more co-operative, less reactive and quicker to approach new things.
We can learn that it is safe for both of us to ask for more space with subtle signals, consistent body language and appropriate responses.
When we learn about subtle communication from our dogs, we are learning from the professionals