“Speaking” Dog

By Lynne Swanson, DVM

If you were approached by someone speaking Tamil, Russian or Swedish, would you easily understand them? Would their attempts at communication set you and that person up for success?

What if they used social cues reflecting cultures you didn’t know? Would it make it easy to work together as a team? 

Probably not without a little help. Communication is clearer when parties use the same language and when they follow the same social cues. The more languages and cultures we understand, the more powerful our ability to connect with others.

Some languages are difficult to master, but “dog” isn’t one of them—despite some unique social cues. When people understand canine body language and when we honor canine social rules, we communicate better with the dogs in our care. We also prevent common behavioral issues, including, but not limited to, stranger reactivity, aggression, resource guarding and certain types of barking.

Canine body language is rooted in posture, position, movement and energy, and dogs interpret our posture, positions, movement and energy (in quantity and quality) in the context of their species. 

Here are four simple ways to make your posture, positions, movement and energy more canine–intuitive, especially with reactive dogs:

1. Reach straight down (and not out): Even dogs that know you may hesitate to come close if you reach out for them. This is where a slight adjustment in direction and posture can make a huge difference. Turning to face the same direction as a dog before taking a short step away with few taps of your hand against your leg encourages him to approach to your side so you can reach down for him (as opposed to reaching out). With small dogs, crouching helps. Moving to allow side–by–side positioning sends a more inviting and less intimidating message than standing still and reaching out ever will. Add a gentle “Come here” and most dogs will happily approach. 

2. Pass small dogs between people back–first: Ask any Chihuahua. Hand–held dogs hate being passed face–first to other people, and many get quite reactive as a result. Face–first movement pushes a dog into another’s personal space, and it disregards polite canine “smell my butt” social cues. Passing a small dog back–first avoids these issues while allowing the original holder to be a calming point of reference. It is safer for everyone involved and less confrontational for the dog.

3. Put owner–protective dogs on your team: The concept of being “on the same team” is important to dogs. When dogs walk or stand side–by–side, the psychology is a lot like a school of fish, a football team or a family. There is the spirit of unity, security, togetherness and of “us” and “them” distinction.

This is especially true of owner–protective dogs, both large and small. Complicating their natural wariness is often the nervousness of their owners. Walking up to these dogs face–to–face with your hand out for their leash, even with your posture calm and confident, is never the best idea because your position places you on another team. 

So, what is the best approach? Simple repositioning to place the dog and his owner on your team! Passing the leashes of owner–protective dogs while standing side–by–side facing the same direction and having owners walk away to leave their dogs “on your staff’s team” is so much safer (and canine–intuitive) than reaching for a dog’s leash while standing across from his owner.

4. Play the muzzle game: Some dogs accept handling better when wearing a comfortable muzzle, especially when this relaxes the nervous or fearful energy of the people around them. That said, how we introduce a muzzle can make a huge difference. Do we slip a muzzle over a dog’s nose, snap its clasp, carry on with our work and whip the muzzle off when we’re none? We don’t. What kind of message would that send to him? How would that set him up to be relaxed around us and happy to wear a muzzle in the future? 

When it comes time to put a muzzle on, we should make the experience into a pleasurable game. We use our palmed muzzle as a vessel to feed small biscuit pieces until the dog readily sticks his nose in it to get treats. We rub some whipped cheese on its nose end and, sitting or standing next to the dog (not across from him), we let him lick a lot of it off before we slip the muzzle over his nose and take it off with a soft “good boy” and a big smile. We put it on again and then remove it with the same quiet praise. This on/off game is repeated several times until the dog accepts the muzzle in a calm manner, at which point we snap it behind his ears, give him a short massage, take it off and put it on again—this time snapping the buckle for good. We are creating trust and good associations through repetition, the better for him to be comfortable with a muzzle in the future.

With dogs that come to us with very strong negative associations with muzzles, we ask their owners to purchase a muzzle and play our muzzle game at home prior to their trip to the clinic. It changes everyone’s perception of a muzzle from negative to very positive.

What is commonly called “socialization” gets dogs used to the way humans do things—such as the way we look directly at others, reach toward them and approach their personal space with a lot of conversation but without allowing time for a good sniff. “Dog” will always be his first language, with “human” a distant second (and dogs view some of the things we do as quite rude). Using canine–intuitive (nose–first, moving, non–verbal and indirect) social cues will always make dogs more comfortable than using human ones. Dogs don’t have to think about them. They don’t have to “get used” to them. Rather, their relaxed response comes naturally. 

The more we, as grooming professionals, learn about canine culture, social cues and non–verbal communication, the more skilled we can become when working with a variety of dogs. The bonus is, canine culture has a lot to teach us! Rooted in balance (as opposed to drama and trauma and who–said–what–to–whom), canine culture likes to seize the moment, and when the moment isn’t so great, it gets moving, both physically and psychologically, to move on to better things.  ✂️

Lynne Swanson, DVM is the author of “Learning DOG” and “SMILE! and other practical life lessons your dogs can teach you (while you are training them).” Together with her Doberman partner, Hiker, she enjoys traveling the U.S. and Canada to speak at conferences and volunteer with the not-for-profit SMILE! Project. This project provides training for shelter, rescue, boarding, training and veterinary personnel (in groups of 30 or more, often networking together), and it raises funds to support dog rescue and the SMILE! pet–parenting library initiative. For more information, visit www.givesmiles.us or call Jan at 252 422 0943.