We communicate mainly orally, while our dogs use mainly the body language. Let’s be beware of contradictions and misunderstandings:
- Let’s learn to observe our dog (postures, calming signals, displacement behaviours,…);
- Let’s do the hand signal each time it is necessary to help, reassure, soustain our dog;
- Never force our dog;
- Let’s be polite with our dog;
- Let’s learn to communicate clearly our requests (let’s think as a dog !).
Our dogs spend a lot of time observing what surrounds them and especially to observe US: nothing escapes them! The position / direction of the shoulders, hips, head or puckered forehead, frowning, a smile, the puckered eyes, a tight or relaxed jaw, … We go to the wardrobe, we put on our shoes or our coat, we take the harness and the leash. When did our dog understand that he was accompanying us on a walk? Very quickly, and in any case long before the harness and leash are in our hands! They spend a lot of time observing us and memorizing our daily routine. Our body language is made up of so many clues to them.
If humans mainly use their voice as a means of communication, our dogs favor body language. If a person uses two contradictory means of communication simultaneously, our dog will choose what he understands best: body language.
“Do you play with me?” A calming signal?
My dog is in the garden, I stand on the doorstep, facing the garden, and I invite him to come in. I call him (verbal communication meaning “come and enter”) but I face my dog and I partially obstruct the passage (bodily communication meaning “do not pass”). I send two contradictory information. It is very likely that my dog will answer the bodily information: “you do not want me to come home? OK, I’m staying in the garden. ” So much frustration for humans, since the dog did not respond to the verbal invitation, the preferred means of communication for humans. Let’s be careful with the messages we send them through our body language.
Our dogs mainly communicating with their body language, let’s learn to read it to avoid annoying misunderstandings. If we have learned to observe and recognize our dog’s facial expressions and postures, we will be able to see if something is bothering him, if something is “stuck”. Our dog is not “disobedient”, he is simply confused because of the lack of precision of the requests that we address to him.
Recommended books and DVD :
- In talking terms with dogs: calming signals by Turid Rugaas (book and DVD)
- Understanding the silent communication of dogs by Rosie Lowry.
Recommended book : In talking terms with dogs: calming signals by Turid Rugaas (book and DVD)
« Calming signals » is the description given by ethologists to, postures, glances, mimics and movements our dogs do to self calm, to ease a tense situation, express their peaceful intentions or to make others understand that they are in an uncomfortable emotional state.»  When our dogs are licking their lips, freezing, scratching, yawning, it is never without a reason! If a dog yawns after waking up, it is a basic biological function. And when he is scratching, it is possible that he is doing so to get rid of a discomfort in his skin. However, at all times, we should ask ourselves whether our companion is not using a calming signal, and take it into consideration.
Our dogs can use these calming signal in many different situations that we are unaware of: a plane or a hot-air balloon, meeting people during our walks, a car, a bark in the neighbourhood (or any animal noises), fireworks or even just noises in our television, an object that we have dropped,… If we can help our dogs to feel more comfortable, why not do it ? To help our dog, a good habit we can learn : the hand signal.
 Source :Véronique Valy, canine consultant, Au’Tour du chien, France
The hand signal
Let us use those two assets to teach him the hand signal : we place our hand (palm turned to our dog) between our dog and the object or the source of the undesired noise. This signal is easy and can be used in all circumstances.
In case of unknown objects, people, noises, etc…this signal means « do no worry, there is nothing to be afraid of ». This simple gesture is easy for our dog to understand. He understands that we are there for him and that we can help him to overcome the difficulties he is facing. He can trust us.
This signal can be useful in many other situations: exciting situations (our dog becomes overjoyed when leaving for a walk or when a much loved visitor arrives,..). Even though the title of her book does not really suggest it, in her boor « Barking, the sound of a language », Turid Rugaas describes many difficult situations and suitable solutions using the hand signal.
For dogs who jump on people, for instance, a hand signal from the « invaded » person, palm towards the dog, combined with clear body language: turning away from the dog (head, shoulders and hips) in different direction to the dog e.g turn away and present your back without looking at him of course. As you both learn, he will understand that his behavior does not bring him attention from you or anyone else. Eventually, the hand signal, on its own, will be enough to dissuade our dog to jump up, meaning « I do not wish to interact like this with you ». Without getting angry, without pushing him ; without screaming, a simple gesture to communicate…
In addition to the calming signals, our dog might use displacement behaviours. It is a wanted behaviour of our dog, showing in a conflicting situation. Our dog tells himself «one is asking me to do something but I do not really want to do it (or I did not understand the request), I’d rather do something else, elsewhere ». Our dog is going to play, dig, sniff some grass,.. Displacement behaviours can also be a reaction to an uncomfortable environment: « all of those cars passing by are so fast, they are scaring me, I’d rather pick up that can and carry it, i twill help me think about something else ». In this specific case, put some distance between the dog and the cars and do the hand signal will help our dog to overcome this difficulty.
For another example, let us go back to our previous case : my dog is in the garden, I am standing on the doorstep, inviting him to go inside.
He receives two contradictory informations (verbal vs body language ). Our dog might react to this double information with a displacement behaviour: I ask him to « come and go inside » but my body language says « do no cross », it is possible he chooses a third solution. He will find something in the garden (a toy, a stick,..) or stop to pee or scratch the ground…
If our dog is doing a calming signal or a displacement behaviour, take that into consideration. Do not ever force your dog to do an activity or a game. Either he has a good reason (physical, emotional or other) to not participate, or he does not know how to respons because our request is not clear. It is better to ask ourselves if it is worth to insist. And if we think so, then ask ourselves how to send our message the most effective way (let us think about the dog ! ).
What humans do in their everyday lives, without finding it impolite or threatening :
- going up straignt to someone.
Let us remember that, for our dogs, those two attitudes are threatening and bring confrontation. Turning away your eyes and curving when approaching him, is a sign of respect and politeness.
Another gesture that is extremely threatening for our dog is to lay a hand on their neck or head. When we are standing close to our dog, the part of his body the closest to our hand is his head. It is almost a reflex to lay a hand on it : let us be aware of the impact of this gesture. It is not insignificant for a dog to have a hand on his head or neck.
Some use the word COMMAND. I prefer the word REQUEST.
Let us face it, humans are talkative. Verbal communication is definitely our natural way of communicating, unlike our dogs. Let us make an effort to improve their understanding of our requests.
“do not jump”, “do not eat”, “do not let go”, “do not roll”, … These requests are not clear. We rely on the fact that our dog will make the difference between “jumping” and “not jumping”. It is an utopia! We have enough vocabulary (and our dogs are able to learn dozens of different requests) to use different words for them that translate what we want (instead of asking what we do not want).
We all have experienced this : “I finish the dishes (or anything else) and we go for a walk”. Our dog has understood “walk”, and is already excited for his walk. He did not understand that we had a task to complete before devoting ourselves to him.
Let us be clear :
- “Do not jump” can become “earth” or “ground”, which means: I ask you to put your 4 legs on the ground ;
- “Not to eat” can become “leave” or “ignore”, which means: I ask you to leave that infamous thing where it is ;
- “Do not let go” can become “guard” or “hold”, for example to teach our dog to carry objects.
Another human reflex and it is not clear at all. Not clear for our dogs ? Of course and not clear for humans too !
Let us imagine that we are approaching an acquaintance, we talk to him/her during the approach and we put our hand on his/her shoulder. He / she tells us NO! Our movement is actually a chain of movements/behaviors: the approach / the discussion / the hand on the shoulder. What exactly does this person say NO to ?
If he or she tells us “stop”, “shut up” or “take off your hand”, we would have known exactly what we had to do. Just a NO is not clear. A string of NO is not clear either.
Out of curiosity, let’s do the test for a day: how many times today, did I say no to my dog? During the first day of testing, the result will certainly be higher than ten. But we will be able to improve over time.
However, we will have to pay particular attention to our intonations (a peremptory voice or a cheerful voice do not have the same effect on our dog) and to the tones (a high voice is exciting, while a low voice is soothing). If we ask our dog to stay put, for instance, we will be careful that our request is calm, clear-cut, with a low voice.
Let’s not forget that all these verbal requests can be replaced / supplemented by gestural or bodily requests:
- to learn “follow me”: turn our body (from the head to the toes including the shoulders and hips) in the direction we want to go, as soon as our dog advances towards us, we can reward / congratulate ;
- for a dog that jumps on people: let’s look away and our whole body (until he turns his back completely if necessary). As soon as the paws are on the ground, we can reward / congratulate ;
- for a dog that eats what he finds on the way, including infamous things: turn our body to the desired destination (certainly not to the infamous thing), a hand signal to the unwanted thing, and a call if necessary (a small sound that will help our dog come back to us, like a whistle, a slap of tongue, or the word we taught him to follow us, like “follow me”). As soon as our dog comes to us, let us go away and reward / congratulate him.
To look at an object will help also our dog to understand which is the target.