Saturday, March 20, 2010

Waggoner's Field Guide to Dog Interpretation

Inviting a member of the species canis familiaris into your home can be a mutually beneficial experience or a disaster.

You may discover that your needs could be met with a less demanding creature.

That being said, I enjoy the company of dogs and currently share my home with five of them. They are part of the family. The road to this state of nirvana is oftentimes bumpy due to language and cultural differences. Until I learned to speak Dog, I, like you, misinterpreted most of what dogs were trying so hard to tell me.
A Dog to Human translation guide is essential and will reduce the potential for embarrassing faux pas on both sides of the culture gap. Besides this one, there are other guides available. Look for authors who do not view this species with suspicion and bias. Make certain their information is current. A dog’s motivations for his actions are not to crown himself King of the World. He, like you, does what works for him and responds to fair treatment and clear instructions.

Dogs (and humans), communicate a great deal with body language. While some body postures are similar to ours, in most cases they have very different meaning.

If a dog does not something you request of him, first ask yourself; is this a communication error or a cultural misunderstanding? Remember, dogs speak a foreign language-repeating your instructions more loudly will not make them any clearer to him.

This brings up the controversial subject of "corrections". If the dog repeatedly does not respond to a request, the following correction may be necessary:

Taking a section of newspaper or magazine, roll it tightly into a cylindrical shape. This should be no more than an inch or so in thickness. Next, stand before the dog and repeat your request, calmly and clearly. If he again fails to comply, take the cylinder you have fashioned and give yourself a sharp rap to the head.  Repeat as needed. This should remind you whose fault it is that the dog has failed to comply.

As with anything else, once you know, it all becomes simple. I hope you will learn from my mistakes in this first of several to come installments.

Items commonly found around the house and the difference in how they are viewed by dogs

If you or I spotted a pair of socks lying on the floor, we would ignore them (in the case of my teenaged daughter) or pick them up and put them where they belong (me). Your canine housemate, on the other hand, will view the socks as an opportunity to settle in for a nice chew.

If you attempt to take them from him, he may hold them more closely, or even growl. This is not because he views the socks as an item he has “stolen” nor is he being “defiant” or the other “D” word.

Translation: In the world of dogs, possession is nine tenths of the law. If an item is held between his paws, close to his body (especially while lying down), there is a presumed safety zone between his mouth and the item. It is understood by all other dogs that the item belongs to the dog who has possession.

If you remove this item you are then behaving rudely, in his view, even if the item is unsafe to him or your carpet. Better to trade him for the socks and move on. No harm, no foul.

An item left alone is up for grabs

This includes the roast beef innocently placed on the table.

Alarmingly, any dog, no matter his size, is capable of devouring a three-pound roast in a stunningly short amount of time. This behavior is unacceptable in polite human society, unless we are participating in a structured competition to determine who can who can eat the most number of hot dogs or pie in one sitting, the motivation being a prize and bragging rights.

Upon witnessing this shocking behavior (I am not speaking of pie eating now, although this can also be shocking to witness), you may involuntarily let out a cry of surprise or even outrage. This will likely cause the dog to lower his body to the ground and begin to slink and cringe towards you. You naturally will interpret this body language as a display of shame and guilt.

It is not.

Translation: Dogs are capable of sensing even the smallest changes in your body chemistry causing them to respond in their own language.
The dog is telling you with this behavior, “I do not wish conflict with you-I am no harm to you” This language can also occur in the presence of damage to possessions, or after a house training error, again leading the human to misinterpret the behavior because it LOOKS identical to our language for guilt.

This reaction by the dog may lead you to question: "If he recognizes that a particular action by him makes me angry, does he therefore not retain that knowledge and store it so the action will not be repeated?"

If only.

Translation: Dogs live very much in the “now”. They react, they do not plan ahead. If they did, they likely would rule the world, judging on how successfully they have convinced another species (us) to house, feed, and care for them. We are indeed fortunate their brains are so small.

Next installment:

Hygiene. Topics covered will include inappropriate public grooming and why carpets make wonderful toilets

Monday, March 8, 2010

Take Me Out To The...Dog Park!

 Dexter, on our way to the dog park!

Right off the bat, I must confess I have reservations about most dog parks. 

Group together a bunch of under-exercised and over-stimulated dogs, with people who have overly optimistic assumptions, ("all dogs enjoy the dog park!") and events can quickly spill out of control!

So, then, what was I doing at the dog park this weekend?

The short answer; because I still believe in the concept of dog parks.

Far too few modern dogs have the opportunity to roam off leash and explore. I really believe that dogs benefit from this sort of activity,  but only if done in the right environment. I know that somewhere, there are good dog parks.

Which brings us to: What makes a good dog park?

In my opinion, these three things must be present:

1. The people using the park appreciate that dogs have varying levels of tolerance and respect that fact. The trend in dog parks is moving towards paid membership, with pre-screened participants. I have not been to this type of park, but it certainly sounds promising.

If your dog has never been to the dog park, and you are unsure if he is ready, check out these tips, first.

2. The people present are continually alert for signs that their dog is becoming overly aroused or anxious.

Those of us who love dogs and who live with dogs were never taught to "speak" dog. Even those we turn to for help more often than not are usually are using their own interpretation of what their dog's body language means, or they are relying upon handed-down anecdotal interpretations.

Why is this?

The answer given most often is that dogs are all around us-we take their presence for granted so no one has really taken the time to study them! Fortunately, this is beginning to change and the discoveries being made about our canine friend is nothing short of fascinating.

This video illustrates what we know so far, of the language of dogs. I have included some great examples of canine play language here. Watch them-you may be surprised at some of the things your dog may be trying to tell you!

3. The main reason the people are present at the dog park is their dog, rather than for socializing. Socializing is great-it just should not be the main motivation for being at the dog park-it is called the Dog Park, after all!

If those three things are in place, the dog park should easily function as it was intended- a place for dogs to be...dogs!


"Visiting the Dog Park" by Cheryl S. Smith

''The Other End of The Leash" by Patricia McConnell

"On Talking Terms With Dogs" by Turid Rugaas