I put my feelers out there in the Friends of Furry Frolics Facebook group to see what people would like to read about in the next blog, and a really great suggestion came up: how and why people so often misread what their dogs are saying to them (thanks Cath!). The fact that so many people don't understand dog body language is frankly SCARY, and if they do ever bring back dog licenses I personally believe that a basic understanding of canine communication should be the number one requirement.
Why? Because ignoring a dog's warning signals is how you get bitten. End of story.
You would think that considering how well a dog can read us we would be able to understand them pretty easily too, but every day when I am tagged in the latest "cute" or "funny" video I am reminded that actually the general public need a lot more education in this area, and I despair at the situations dogs are being put in despite their whole communication system screaming "NO!".
What most people see as a cute video, I see as a dog bite waiting to happen.
These videos tend to be in the following three categories:
1. "The Smiling Dog" (The dog who gives fair warning)
There are a lot of these about. I remember one where a guy puts his face really close to his dog's face and smiles. The dog, clearly uncomfortable with the proximity, and/or guarding a resource, bares his teeth. Apparently this is funny because the dog is "smiling back". Although a very very VERY small number of dogs do show their teeth when they are happy (I have met one in my life), the vast majority of dogs will bare their teeth as a high-level warning, one or two steps away from a full-blown bite depending on the learning history of that dog. If you EVER see a dog baring her teeth....get away from the dog and be grateful that she warned you! If the dog is guarding something (food, bone, toy, sofa, person), get in touch with a force-free trainer or behaviourist so you can work towards making her feel more secure.
2. "The Shocked Dog" (the stressed dog)
I saw a video the other day where a Great Dane is scratched on the nose by a cat on a window sill. The dog freezes, ears pinned back showing whale eye. Whale eye is what we call it when you can see the whites of a dog's eyes, and it is often a sign of unease, especially when paired with freezing and the ears being pulled back. What I saw in that video is a dog who is extremely uncomfortable around the cat (and who wouldn't be after being bopped on the nose?!) and a situation that could within seconds end in a dead cat. The dog was saying "I don't like this creature, I am scared, please do not hurt me". Unfortunately, what a lot of people see is a dog looking as if he is a cartoon version of shocked after being hit on the nose.
3. "The Guilty Dog" (the terrified dog)
This is my number one bug bear! There are actually compilations on the YouTube of loads of clips of different dogs who have "been naughty" and are supposedly "feeling guilty". Well, here's the thing: dogs can't mentally time travel!!! When you come home and the dog has chewed your slippers, ripped open a cushion and peed on your rug, she has NO IDEA why you are angry. Those "guilty looks" that you think she is giving you are actually appeasement signals. The dog knows you are angry and is doing everything she can to show you that she is not a threat, and she doesn't want a fight. She is scared of your body language, your tone of voice, and the fact you are staring right down at her. She is NOT feeling guilty. If you don't believe me, look up Horowitz's 2009 study.
There are countless other pieces of body language which are misinterpreted (a tail wag doesn't always mean a dog is happy, for example) but the above three are the ones that most commonly do the rounds on the internet. I don't like to be a spoil sport, and I'm sure some people reading this blog might want to tell me to lighten up and get a life! The problem is that dog bites are preventable, and hundreds if not thousands of dogs are being put to sleep each year because they bit "out of the blue" or "with no warning", when actually there has been plenty of warning but it has been misunderstood as something else. Nobody ever thinks it's going to happen to them, until it's too late. If you learn to understand our dog's requests for space, the chances of you becoming one of those statistics will be dramatically lowered!
So what can we do to make sure we fully understand what our best friends are saying to us? Well after slating the internet for 4 paragraphs, I'm now going to big it up- there are LOADS of decent resources out there to teach you the true meaning of dog body language if you know where to look (hint: not YouTube!). To get you started, I have pasted some links at the bottom of the blog.
Dogs have survived for thousands of years by evolving to read even our most subtle body language, it's about time we returned the favour!