Let sleeping dogs lie… but never let puppy dogs cry!

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Image pinched from here

In the wild, a puppy would stay with their mum for about 9 months. So when we take them home at 8 or 9 weeks, they really are still infants in need of a mother. Our job is to become that mother- to care for them emotionally and physically and to create an environment that allows them to grow and flourish, and most importantly, to feel safe.

This is a big commitment, requires compromise and sacrifices, and there are going to be times when it is difficult. But the benefits you will reap from making sure your puppy’s needs are met and that they grow up feeling happy and safe make it so worthwhile.

Don’t let them cry it out

For many years, the advice doled out to new puppy parents was to bring their puppy home, put them to bed that night (often in a cage in another part of the house), and then to ignore their cries. This, we were told, would avoid ‘rewarding’ their ‘attention seeking’ behaviour and lead to a puppy who could cope with being left alone.  The same advice was given to parents of human children for many years, and today many people still adhere to it, for both canine and human babies.

But guess what?

It has been shown that the effects of not responding to infants (human or canine) does the reverse of teaching independence- allowing a baby to repeatedly become distressed in this way is damaging to their ability to establish secure attachments in the long term, and is more likely to lead to clingy, demanding children, with a deep sense of insecurity which can stay with them for the rest of their lives.

In my capacity as a dog trainer, babies are of limited interest to me! But science has taught us that mammalian brains all work pretty similarly. A lot of research done on mammalian brains has been done on rats (sorry rats!), and we know from this research that there is a period in the ‘infant’ stage of life where the caregiving that an animal receives has a life-long impact on how prone they are to being anxious. Rats whose mothers were nurturing and caring in their early days (which translates to longer periods in larger mammals who develop more slowly) had the genes for controlling anxiety turned on, whereas those who had ‘low-nurturing’ mothers never had these genes turned on, and suffered from anxiety for the rest of their lives. This is something which seems to be true across the board.

We also know that when an animal becomes excessively stressed, the body’s response becomes destructive, negatively impacting the brain, emotions, the digestive system, the immune system. Excessive stress is simply not good for us.

And, we know that when a puppy cries, their mum always responds. This all makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. Crying young alert predators to the presence of vulnerable, tasty youngsters! Dogs always do a very good job of rearing puppies, so we could do a lot worse than following their example.

So what should we do?

Dogs are social sleepers- they find safety in company, and without it, struggle to get the deep sleep they need. The ideal situation is to have your puppy sleep with a member of the family. Most puppies sleep longer and sounder when they are with you, so you might find the night is not as broken as you’d expect.

If you have a carpeted room and are worried about your puppy sneaking off to the corner for a wee (or worse!) during the night, a simple solution is to block off the parts of your room that you can, and cover the rest with a waterproof bedsheet- these usually have non-slippery cotton on top and a waterproof backing.

If you don’t want your dog in your room forever, as the puppy gets older you can gradually move their bed further and further from yours. Having their bed just outside your door with a dog gate rather than a shut door can be a good interim arrangement.

If they can’t be in the bedroom, camping downstairs with them for the first while can be helpful. You can then work on gradually increasing the time they are left downstairs.

Know when they’re tired

Puppies need a lot of sleep- upwards on 20 hours a day! But dogs are polyphasic sleepers- they sleep in multiple blocks throughout the day and night.

People often worry about their puppies sleeping too much during the day, and wonder how this will affect their sleep at night. But they need so much sleep that this is highly unlikely to be the case. In fact, depriving your puppy of sleep can have the reverse effect! Puppies who are over-tired can become hyperactive and restless and find it difficult to go to sleep at night. So if they’re resting during the day, don’t worry- it might help you get a better night’s sleep.

Here are some signs that your puppy may be tired or over-tired:

  • Yawning;
  • Eyes closing whilst sitting up;
  • Red eyes (I once had a pom-chi in puppy class whose eyes used to actually get puffy when he was tired);
  • Hyper-activity;
  • Excessive nipping;
  • Restlessness or not knowing what to do with themselves;
  • Vocalisations (barking, whining)
  • Grumpiness (snappiness).

If it’s too early for you to go to bed, if everyone just sits down calmly and leaves the puppy be, they will probably lie down and go to sleep. Offering them a food-based chew can help relax them.

Early starts

Dogs are naturally crepuscular, which means their most active times of the day can be dawn or dusk (many people report their puppies having a mad half hour morning and evening, and this is the reason). Over time, they adjust to our rhythm of life, but this is something they learn over time, not immediately. Be patient if your puppy is rising at 5.30 and ready to face the day!

Letting them out for a wee, and then encouraging them back to bed with a food-based chew can gain you an extra half hour of sleep!

Alternatively, scattering some of their breakfast in the garden can serve the dual purpose of tiring them out in a calm way by engaging their brains as they sniff around for the treats, and filling their tummies! Sniffing also lowers the pulse-rate and as such is a calming activity. You might well find they’re ready for another nap after the exertion. This is also a good exercise to do in the evening before bed.

Getting ready for bed

  • Keep everything calm and quiet before bedtime so your puppy is getting into the right frame of mind to sleep. Remember that adrenaline can stay in the system for 6 hours, so keeping them calm as much of the time as possible is actually a good idea!
  • Let them out for a toilet trip before bed.
  • Don’t withhold water- puppies can become easily dehydrated and need access to water at all times. If you are concerned about toilet training, offering them a wet food can mean that they get most of their required fluids with their meals and are less likely to graze on water throughout the day and night, making it easier to predict when they need to go.
  • If your puppy is struggling to settle, a calm nose game in the evening can help them get into a calmer frame of mind. Read more here.

Get the night time routine right, and you can rest assured that you’re increasing your odds of raising a happy, stress-free puppy with a secure attachment, and hopefully getting a better night’s sleep yourself in the process!

 

My new book ‘Office Dogs; The Manual’ is now available to pre-order on Amazon. Find it here!

 

Fags and Fido- Another Reason to Quit?

As New Year’s Resolutions abound, many people are attempting to quit smoking. That’s obviously great news for them, their family and friends, but also for their dog. We don’t often consider the impact that smoking can have on our pets, but understanding the serious implications the habit can have on furry family members can serve as an extra push to kick the habit.

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Passive Smoking

The detrimental effects of smoking on the smoker, as well as on their family, have been widely publicised, and it is well known that smoking, as well as passive smoking, can cause serious health problems, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and lung disease.

We also know that 85% of cigarette smoke is invisible and that toxic particles accumulate on the surfaces of our homes, including furniture and carpets as well as clinging to our clothes and hair, long after the smoking has stopped. These surface accumulations are known as third hand smoke, and are thought to be even more carcinogenic than second hand smoke. The particles are released from the surfaces they cling to and react with other indoor pollutants, creating a further toxic mix. Airing does not remove these particles, clothes and surfaces must be thoroughly cleaned to get rid of them.

And, we also know that it’s not just people who are effected by second and third hand smoke. Our pets are even more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of the by-products of smoking. This is because:

  • They can absorb the toxins clinging to carpets and floors through their paws;
  • The toxins will transfer to their coats, which they may then lick (particularly problematic in cats, who are fastidious groomers!);
  • They are lower down and closer to the carpets and furniture and the particles they will be releasing;
  • They often do not have the opportunity to remove themselves from the smoky environment.

Research into the effect of passive smoking on dogs has shown that living with a smoker leads to:

  • an increased risk of nasal and lung cancer;
  • cell damage;
  • increased weight gain after neutering;
  • an increased risk of corneal ulceration (ouch!).

Although there are limited amounts of research into the effects of passive smoking on dogs specifically, I think it is safe to assume that they will also be subject to the myriad of problems experienced by humans who are subjected to second and third hand smoke. I also can’t help but think how much more unpleasant it must be for dogs to be around cigarette smoke with their far superior sense of smell.

Nicotine

The other risk to dogs from smoking comes by way of nicotine poisoning, and ironically, this can be more common whilst owners are attempting to quit, owing to the presence of nicotine replacement patches, gums etc. in the home. The toxic level of nicotine in dogs is 0.5-1.0mg per pound (approx. 500g) of body weight. 10mg/kg of body weight can be enough to have fatal consequences. The effects of nicotine poisoning can be seen within an hour and include:

  • Vomiting;
  • Abnormal heart rate;
  • Drooling;
  • Incoordination;
  • Hallucination;
  • Tremors;
  • Weakness;
  • Collapse.

If you think your dog has ingested nicotine containing products, do contact your vet.

Mitigating the Risk

If you are a smoker, you can reduce the risk to your dog by not smoking in the house. Remember, however, that the toxic particles will still be present on your clothes and hair, so this does not eliminate the risk to your pet.

If you are quitting, the great news is that your pet will be living in a much less toxic environment soon. In the meantime, be sure to keep all nicotine containing items out of your dog’s reach, including cigarette butts, which puppies particularly will often pick up to investigate, and which contain high levels of nasty toxins.

 

My new book ‘Office Dogs; The Manual’ is now available to pre-order on Amazon. Find it here!

 

Christmas Puppies

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When I was working in London, January through to March was always one of my busiest times for puppy classes. These first few months of the year nearly always saw me more than double the number of classes I ran to cope with demand.

The reason? Christmas puppies!

Every year, the dog world appeals to people not to buy puppies for Christmas. And we’re not being curmudgeonly, I swear! We’ve just heard too many heart-breaking stories about the fate of Christmas puppies, and the older dogs who are often abandoned to make space for a newer, cuter replacement. Yet the demand for puppy classes in the New Year shows that Christmas is still a really popular time to buy puppies.

So, what sort of thing should you consider if you are thinking about a Christmas puppy?

Where will your puppy come from?

As a dog trainer, I know about the Christmas puppy rush. Guess who else knows? Puppy farmers. They try to cash in on the demand, and if people are in a rush to buy a puppy in time for Christmas, the risks of them falling foul of an unscrupulous puppy farmer are higher. There are lots of really good guides out there to avoiding puppies from puppy farms (like this one). Ending up with a puppy from a puppy farm increases demand for puppies bred in deplorable conditions and sentences female dogs to a lifetime of having litter after litter, each one taken away from them. Additionally, your chances of having a sickly puppy or one with behavioural problems rises exponentially. You can read more about puppy farming here.

Who’ll do all of the hard work?

Puppies take a lot of work. Who’s going to spend the Christmas period taking puppy out every 30-60 minutes, cleaning up the accidents, making 4 meals a day for puppy, picking things up off the floor that your puppy will chew, and comforting children who don’t understand why the puppy is nipping them or chewing the new toys that Santa brought them? It’s not many people’s idea of a perfect Christmas!

Puppies are not puppies for long!

Christmas puppies, as with all puppies, don’t waste much time growing up. By 6-8 months of age (just 4 months after you bring your puppy home), you’ll have a dog who has the size and appearance of an adult dog, and who acts like an adolescent. According to figures from the RSPCA over 600 pets were abandoned over the festive period in 2015. But the real peak in animal neglect occurred 6 months later. By then the Christmas puppies had become summer adolescents. Adolescent dogs can be really hard work. But many Christmas puppies don’t even make it to the summer- the reality of having a peeing, pooing, barking, nipping puppy often hits home a lot sooner, and shelters always report an increase in puppies being handed in the weeks following the festive period.

Are you prepared for a significant ongoing financial commitment?

Who else finds it depressing looking at their bank account figures in January? Now imagine you’ll have to shell out for vaccines (I haven’t priced these but I’m guessing you’ll be paying E80-E100 each vaccine visit), puppy classes (E100-E150), dog food, leads, harnesses. Does everyone in the household go to school or work? Add dog walkers or daycare arrangements to that too. I read recently that over an average lifespan of 15 years, a dog will cost you £10,000-£20,000.

It’s a gift with a lot of responsibility attached!

Christmas puppies are usually gifts. Does the recipient definitely want a puppy? Are they prepared for all of the responsibilities that come with a puppy? I had a client once whose husband had surprised her with a puppy. They also had an 18 month child and the husband worked away. She needed the added responsibility of a puppy like a hole in the head!

And please, please don’t buy puppies for children. Children cannot be expected to be responsible for another living being. It’s not fair on the child, and it’s not fair on the dog. An adult in the house needs to be willing to take responsibility for the dog (for the next 12-15 years) long after the kids may have lost interest of moved out. Of course it’s fine if the children want to help out in a supervised capacity. You can read more on dogs and children here.

Is it really the best time?

Christmas is chaotic for most of us. Do you know what a baby dog, who’s just been taken away from his mother and siblings and placed in a new and potentially frightening environment definitely doesn’t need in their first couple of weeks??? The excitement of Christmas. They do not need to have a multitude of (perhaps tipsy) visitors cooing over them and handling them. They do not need new owners who have to keep leaving the house for their next festive engagement. They do not need excitable children running around. Rather, they need calmness, stability and time (and up to 20 hours sleep a day) to slowly get used to their new life in a way they can cope with.

What about a Christmas rescue dog?

Thinking of adopting an older dog instead? Always commendable to choose a dog in need, but unless you’re a Christmas recluse, I’d still recommend holding out until a calmer time. As with puppies, settling into a new home can be difficult for a rescue dog. Rescue dogs are often really exhausted from the stress they’ve had to deal with, and some need weeks of just sleeping. They need their new owners to have time to just be with them. As with puppies, they need calmness and stability and time! Expecting them to deal with the excitement of Christmas as soon as they arrive is a big ask.

So if you really want a puppy, why not clear some time in your calendar during spring (as an added bonus, spring/summer puppies are often easier to toilet train than winter ones as they tend to find going out in the warmer weather less objectionable), take your time to find a reputable breeder and to research the breed of dog that will be most suited to your lifestyle. If you’re thinking of getting the dog for someone else, why not tell them of your intentions, and get them this wonderful DVD about caring for a puppy as a stocking filler, and enjoy Christmas without the added worry of a new furry arrival!

 

My new book ‘Office Dogs; The Manual’ is now available to pre-order on Amazon. Find it here!

 

 

Creating an Enriched Environment for your Dog

When I was doing my Education with Turid, enriched environments were one of the first things we learned about. An enriched environment is basically an area that’s been set up to stimulate the dog’s senses- things to look at, sniff, touch, investigate, climb on, etc. The dog should be left to interact with the enriched environment without any input from the humans and be free to walk away when they want to.

I’ll admit, I was sceptical… it sounded almost too easy to be true. Would putting out random stuff for a dog to investigate really make a difference to their behaviour? Well, 18 months later, at the end of our course, we all had to present a project. Some of my fellow students had been working in shelters, and for their projects had put Turid’s methods into practice in the shelters, including the enriched environment, and recorded their findings. A lot of the dogs these people were working with had real issues- some were reactive to other dogs, some were reactive to people, some were just incredibly stressed or shut down. The changes they reported back were incredible. The dogs became calmer, and more focused and their behaviour improved.

 

Shelter dog Sheena

A shelter dog (courtesy of Caroline Lewis) unwinding in an enriched environment.

So if I wasn’t convinced before, I certainly was then. Often, we’re reluctant to try the more simple things, especially for complex problems. We think ‘that won’t work for my dog’, and we don’t try, or we give up too soon. But if enriched environments can help shelter dogs, often some of the most stressed and ‘difficult’ dogs in our society, there’s no reason not to try them with our own dogs.

 

When to use an enriched environment

Dogs are naturally curious creatures, so really an enriched environment is a great idea for any dog. Putting out new things will pique their curiosity, and as they amble around investigating they’ll be using their brains and developing confidence. And of course, it’s interesting, in the same way as browsing your favourite shop or discovering a new place and seeing new things is for us.

Bad weather day? Dog on restricted exercise after an injury? It’s a great way to alleviate boredom! You don’t need to go anywhere, you just need to find new things to put in the same place.

Enriched environments are also particularly useful with dogs who are scared or stressed. It’s a great way of providing mental stimulation without subjecting them to walks or places they might find stressful or scary. Also, because there’s no human input once the environment has been created, the dogs’ confidence can grow. They’re making decisions and thinking for themselves. They have choice, an essential component for overcoming fear. They’re getting practice at encountering strange or new objects in a safe space, which they can leave at any time.

With dogs who are scared or stressed, they may initially have very little interest in investigating. They may constantly look to their owner for reassurance. They may find the enriched environment overwhelming and leave very quickly. That’s absolutely fine. Just try again a few days later. And then a few days later. You can time your dog to see if they begin to get more confident/more interested/more relaxed.

For dogs who are over-excited or lacking focus, environmental enrichment can teach them to slow down and begin to engage with their environment. Once they slow down, they can begin to think before they act. They’ll be using their noses, and sniffing slows the heart rate, calming them down (read more about sniffing here). As with fearful or stressed dogs, it may take some time before they’re relaxed enough to really engage with things. That’s fine too, stick with it!

 

Tips for creating an enriched environment

  • Don’t use anything that could injure your dog;
  • Don’t use anything that you wouldn’t want your dog to pee on or destroy (they don’t tend to, but if you suddenly have to leap up and try to get something from your dog you’ll be undermining the object of the exercise);
  • Your enriched environment can be inside or outside;
  • Your dog should be off-lead and free to move towards/away from things as they wish;
  • Change things up each time you create an enriched environment. Things will lose appeal once they’ve been thoroughly investigated. Have lots of things to rotate, introduce new things when you can, or lend your items to friends so they come back smelling different;
  • Don’t distract your dog. Don’t praise them, don’t stroke them, don’t call them away, just leave them to it;
  • Let them leave once they’re ready to- no pressure, no targets. They may wander away and come back, or they may leave and lie down. Just let your dog lead
  • All that investigating is more work than you’d imagine- when your dog is finished with the enriched environment, they’ll probably be very tired. Make sure they have time to rest!

 

Things to include

There’s no recipe for an enriched environment. Just use your imagination! Kids can be really good at coming up with novel ideas. Here are just a few suggestions to start you off:

 

Things that smell interesting Things that feel interesting Things that look interesting Things that move/make noises
  •  Laundry
  •  Other dogs’ toys/bedding
  • Things that smell of other animals- sheep’s wool, animal skins, horse’s brushes. I once got some used hamster bedding from the local petshop!
  •  Safe plants and herbs
  • Sticks from the park
  •  Hay bales

 

  • Tarpaulin
  •  Sandpit
  •  Soft furnishings
  • Leaves in autumn
  •  Dried seaweed
  •  Hay

 

  • Traffic cones
  • Teddy bears
  • Black sack with clothes or other items in
  • Household items- vacuum cleaner, drying rack
  • Cans/tins suspended from strings
  • Toy buggies or carts
  • Wind chimes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a video of Seren, a 4 year old Duck Tolling Retriever, exploring an enriched environment (with thanks to Kirsty Grant for the video and Seren’s human, C. Holborrow!).

Have you any good ideas for things to include in an enriched environment?? Do leave a comment if you have!

 

My new book ‘Office Dogs; The Manual’ is now available to pre-order on Amazon. Find it here!

 

The Gift of a Growl

 

‘He growled at me the other day!’

This is something I hear commonly from clients. It is always uttered with a tone of shocked and offended indignance which would lead you to believe

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Ok, so it mightn’t look pretty, but growling is a wonderful warning system, and a really clear piece of communication which should never be punished.

that their dog had done something truly awful.But growling is a normal, natural, functional part of the dog’s vocabulary, and one we misunderstand terribly. Almost invariably, when people tell me that their dog has growled at them, they see the growl as a threat. An indication that the dog wishes to harm them. The irony is that a growl is exactly the reverse of this! Dogs growl to avoid conflict.

Dogs don’t speak the way we do, but that’s not to say they don’t have a complex system of communication. Their communication comprises body language, sounds, and odour.

Their range of sounds includes whining, whimpering, barking, howling, ‘chatting’, yelping, and of course, growling. As a highly social species, one of the primary purposes of communication for a dog is to avoid conflict. Growling is no exception. A growl says ‘I don’t want to fight, but I do want you to know I’m not comfortable with this’.

A growl rarely comes out of nowhere. If a dog is feeling uncomfortable with a situation, you can nearly always spot it in their body language first- they freeze, they look away, they show the whites of their eyes. They might lick their lips or yawn. However, we humans often miss these signals, and when we do, the dog is forced to escalate their behaviour, and a lot of the time, nobody hears the dog until they do growl.

And a growl is a wonderful gift. The growl itself is not an act of aggression, it is the only way the dog can make itself heard when all of his other signals have been ignored. If you punish a growl, you are disabling a really useful warning system. If a dog’s body language is ignored, and his voice is punished, he’s only left with one way of communicating- his teeth.

So, if your dog growls at you:

  1. Stop what you were doing and give the dog space;
  2. If you really need your dog to do something, try and think of a less confrontational way of asking him to do it. For instance, if he’s eating something he shouldn’t, he may be happy to leave it if you offer him the opportunity to do a treat search elsewhere;
  3. Come up with a plan for dealing with similar situations in the future. If your dog growled because you tried to move him from the couch, perhaps you could do some work around training an ‘off’ for future use. If the issue was food he shouldn’t eat, perhaps you can teach a ‘leave’;
  4. Question your own motivation. Often people are moving a dog or acting in a threatening way because they’ve been told they need to show their dog who’s boss. This sort of thinking is based on outdated theories and will only serve to damage your relationship with your dog and lead to more serious problems down the line. Don’t take things from your dog or make him move for the sake of proving you can.
  5. Most importantly, don’t punish your dog in any way. You can read more on the pitfalls of punishment here.

Don’t silence your dog. Don’t lose the gift of a growl.

Dogs and Maslow Part 5

Love and belonging is the next need on Maslow’s list. This relates to the need that humans have for a feeling of acceptance and belonging within their social groups.

One great similarity shared by dogs and humans is that both are social species, and I believe this need for love and belonging is as strong in dogs as it is in humans. Dogs are often acquired to meet the human need for love and belonging, but how good are we at meeting that same need in them?

So, as part of this need for love and belonging, let’s look at the dog’s need for company, to be understood when they try to communicate with us, and their need for love and care, bestowed in a responsible and beneficial way.

Company

Dogs derive a sense of safety from being around others. For pet dogs, ‘others’ are often their humans. For village dogs, feral dogs or wild dogs, ‘others’ will usually be other dogs. Feral dogs tend to live in groups of 2-6 dogs. Being in groups mean that dogs can relax more, and don’t feel solely responsible for being on alert for any danger.

Dogs are social sleepers, and social eaters, and being alone is one of the greatest challenges faced by pet dogs. A lot of dogs sleep in the kitchen or utility room, far away from their humans. Many people then go out to work, leaving their dogs alone for 10+ hours a day. For a dog in this situation, they are essentially in isolation for 18 hours of the day. This is a real challenge for animals that have spent most of their evolutionary history in groups.

It is no surprise that a lot of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Unfortunately, common wisdom about teaching dogs to be alone has been that they ‘just have to get used to it’. For years, the wisdom was that when you did leave your puppy or dog alone, and they cried, or barked, or howled, that they should be left until they were quiet. However, when a puppy cries, their mother will always attend to them. In the wild, puppies stay with their mum for 9 months, so when we take home a puppy at 8 or 9 or 10 weeks, we really do need to step into the role of Mum. When a puppy is distressed they have a biological need and expectation that their mother will come. The most recent studies I have read on the matter suggest that contrary to common belief, dogs that are left to ‘cry it out’ are in fact more likely to suffer from separation anxiety.

So how can we manage this problem?

  • Consider whether you need to leave your dog in a different part of the house overnight- you can potentially half the amount of time your dog has to be alone if you let him/her choose where to sleep.
  • Don’t leave your dog in a state of distress. You need to teach your dog to handle being alone. Start leaving them for a few seconds with a really tasty bone or chew, and build the time slowly, at a level they can handle. If you do this, they shouldn’t reach a point where they need to cry or howl, but if they do, remember that they need you to be their parent, and ignoring their calls isn’t going to make them feel more secure.
  • We can also make sure that our dogs have opportunities to have a rich social life with canine friends outside of the home! Puppy classes and social walks are a great way to offer our dogs these opportunities.

Communication

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Here, Leo looks away, licks his lips and lifts a paw- these are all calming signals that show that he’s finding my behaviour a little worrying! I didn’t notice at the time, but it’s clear as day in the photo!

Although so many of us share our lives and homes with dogs, we often don’t communicate very effectively with them. We sometimes interact in quite a verbal way with our dogs, despite the fact that our common language is body language. Dogs have quite a developed system of communicating through body language. They use this with other dogs, and try (often in vain) to use it with us. I see so many cases of humans missing or misinterpreting the signals that their dogs are giving out.

Turid Rugaas has written a book called ‘On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals’ which provides an invaluable guide to anyone who wants to better understand what their dogs are trying to communicate to them and to each other. Below is a loose overview of some of the most commonly used signals that you might see your dog use. Please bear in mind that these all need to be taken in context- a dog yawning while relaxed on the couch after a long walk is probably tired; a dog who is yawning as you stare at it or hug it, is more likely to be displaying a calming signal.

  • Head turn;
  • Turning away;
  • Lip licking;
  • Blinking;
  • Yawning.

These are all signs that the dog might use to diffuse a potentially aggressive situation by indicating their good intent, or to let us or another dog know that they’re not entirely comfortable. One of my dog’s suffers from corns, and whenever I try and put moisturiser on her paws or touch them to check on the corns, she will look away and lick her lips, to let me know that my interference with her painful foot is making her uncomfortable.

You may also notice your dog curving as they approach or pass other dogs. This is a non confrontational way of approaching, but we often deprive our dogs of this opportunity by holding them on a short lead or forcing them to pass other dogs on a narrow pathway. Dogs that have under-developed social skills or reactivity issues can be aided by your encouraging this curve as they approach other dogs.

Another oft-misunderstood part of the dog’s repertoire of communication is the ‘whale eye’ look that is often misinterpreted as guilt or shame, but is in fact a fear response to your anger.

This is just one part of the equation. We also commonly use body language in a way that dogs can find quite confusing and/or threatening, such as:

  • bending over them;
  • approaching with out-stretched hands;
  • head patting (a primate thing- dogs never pat each other on the head!);
  • hugging (another primate thing that dogs can find restrictive or frightening, especially if done by someone they don’t know and trust);
  • calling them forward while standing square on (a ‘stay away’ stance as far as they’re concerned);
  • approaching straight on (an intimidating approach);
  • putting our faces close to theirs and making straight-on eye contact (often perceived as acts of aggression).

This sort of thing will often be met by the dog using some of the calming signals mentioned above- looking away, turning away, lip licking etc to try and discourage you!

Keep an eye on how you’re interacting with your dog, watch how he or she reacts to you, and try to listen to what they’re telling you with their body language. Being better able to understand your dog will definitely improve your relationship and will contribute to your dog feeling safer.

Love?

I like to think that most people love their dogs. However… perhaps a better question to pose is do we love our dogs in a way that benefits them? When another living being is entirely dependant on you, loving them comes with a lot of responsibility.

In her book about her journey with a rescued street dog from Romania, Lisa Tenzin-Dolma sums up the responsibility of having a dog:

‘Taking care of another living creature, whether human or non-human, necessitates accepting responsibility for their wellbeing and safety. The very expression ‘take care of’ indicates of the process of caring for, looking after, concerning ourselves with, nurturing, and helping that soul reach full potential. It’s a term of selfless love; or rather it should be. Whether our care is extended to children, family members, friends in need, those we are employed to help professionally, or non-human charges, it has to be unconditional. Putting conditions on caring taints and ultimately undermines the relationship.

Choosing to take responsibility involves accepting the likelihood that there will be a degree of sacrifice. Because it involves doing what is best for the other party, this can result in making decisions that cause us inconvenience, wither minor or major…’

In the above extract, Lisa Tenzin- Dolma speaks of helping a soul to reach full potential. Training a dog to be a robot and to blindly follow commands does not allow that dog to reach full potential. To love them in a way that benefits them, we need to be parents to our dogs, to guide, to protect but also to allow them become their own person (if you will!), able to make their own decisions and to think for themselves. We need to give them the confidence to explore the world, to be curious and to enjoy life. We need to think about what they need from us, and not just what we’d like from them. We need to be reasonable in our expectations, and recognise and enjoy the differences between dogs and humans.

And if we’re going to love our dogs unconditionally, responsibly, and in a way that benefits them, I suppose a lot of people will want to know if they love us too, or if they just see us as food dispensing, shelter-providing, chauffeurs?

Science appears to be proving that they do. Darwin was of the opinion that animals experience the same emotions as humans, but to a lesser extent. For a long time, the scientific community believed that dogs were just pavlovian machines, learning that one thing was a consequence of another. Then it became generally accepted that they experienced primary emotions, and now it is becoming apparent that they most likely experience an entire range of emotions, and also have a theory of mind.

If their enthusiastic greetings, constant willingness to forgive, and endless displays of affection were not enough to convince us of dogs’ love of their humans, various studies have shown that dogs’ brains release oxytocin, the bonding chemical, when they look at their humans. Gregory Berns, in his studies on canine emotional responses, found that the caudate of the brain (the reward centre) lit up when dogs are presented with the smell of a human family member, to a much greater extent than when presented with the smells of non-family members or other dogs.

Because we are generally not entirely dependent on our dogs, their love of us may have less responsibility attached to it, but all the same they love us with an endurance and consistency that many people would struggle to match!

So, there you have it! Some reflections on what is involved in providing dogs with the love and sense of belonging they need and deserve, and the indicators that they love us too.