Parents learn to read signs of hunger and tiredness in their babies and experienced horse people can pick a subtle lameness from across the paddock. But when it comes to our companion dogs and cats we are often not so good at understanding how they are feeling.
I have had clients state that their dogs don’t give any warning signals before they aggress. Whilst this is certainly true for some dogs (often those that have been reprimanded for growling and other behaviours in the past), many dogs do show their owners appropriate ‘early warning signs’ of unease, they are just not being seen or understood.
If we are not recognising and reacting to our dogs when they are telling us,“ I am not happy in this situation”, we leave them with only one real option and that is to deal with the problem themselves. For many dogs this means overt aggression.
The aim of aggression is to increase the distance between the animal and the thing it doesn’t like/scared of. If we can do this job for them – by accurately identifying when they start to feel uncomfortable and remove them from the situation, they will have less need to aggress.
Our poor ability to read canine body language is why off leash parks and puppy preschool classes that continue to have ‘free for all’ play sessions are potentially so damaging. It is very easy for things to get out of control and for timid individuals to be overwhelmed. Responsible puppy class trainers understand this and will generally pair compatible puppies up for play sessions rather than have the entire class run amok together.
Being able to effectively read our dogs body language means we have a portal into understanding their emotional state. This is really important when we talk about Behaviour Modification and Desensitization and Counter Conditioning.
These programmes are based on how the animal is ‘feeling’ and not just what it is ‘doing’ – a subtle but important distinction from obedience training where the focus is on getting the dog to do what the owner wants.
The better we get at reading our dogs body language and picking up their subtle signs of being in a negative emotional state – such as a sideways glance, a freeze or stiffening up of the body – the greater the chance we can prevent problems before they escalate.
As with everything in life, practise makes perfect. The more you watch dogs, all dogs not just your own, the better you will get at learning to read them. And when you do, you will start to marvel at how much information they communicate not only to each other, but to us as well.
Written by Dr Emma Hughes BSc; BVSc; MSc (Animal Behaviour); MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour).