Monday, May 18, 2015

Honesty Really is the Best Policy (Canine Body Language Part 2)

I love it when new clients call or email before a consult and say something like "I'll have to muzzle her", "don't wear a hat", or "you can't shake our hands because it really freaks him out".

I love hearing these things because it gives me an idea of what to expect from a dog that is new to me. It also gives me an idea of how responsible their human is- someone who wants to avoid me being mauled by their dog is a person I would much rather work with than someone who wants me to  "see her at her worst".  I really, really don't want to be a guinea pig- I want to see your dog's behavior firsthand or on video if possible, but I can generally ask enough questions to get a good idea without fighting off a dog attack. When someone describes a detailed routine that they use to have their dog greet new people, I learn that they are at least trying something to prevent incidents.

Whether we end up going in a different direction or trying a different protocol, I am more than happy to work with clients like this.

When I worked as a vet tech, it was the same way. Sometimes it meant clients being put into two time slots in the schedule, or bringing a dog-aggressive dog into the clinic through the employee entrance. When clients came in with their dog already muzzled, or they told us "he's better when I'm not in the room, so I can wait in the lobby", it showed not only how well they knew their dog and themselves, but how much they trusted us. Their honesty with us was a big factor in that trust ever developing, since trust is a two way street in any relationship.

Why should this matter to you?

Well, it's Dog Bite Prevention Week (read more here) and it seems like a fitting time to remind all both of the readers of my little blog (thanks Matt and Heidi) that knowing your dog can save you, strangers and the pet professionals in your life. Your dog may never bite or attempt to bite anyone in her life, no matter how many times she may be pushed, but it is still good to know some basic body language so your dog doesn't have to feel uncomfortable and so you don't find yourself on the wrong end of a dog bite(... not that there really is a good end to be on when there's a dog bite...)
So, people who have reactive or fearful dogs have had to learn the hard way what body language means and you have me to help you learn some simple things.

-Tenseness in his face and body, especially if his whole body seems tense it means he needs a break from the situation or at the very least a good distraction- redirect him to you and ask for a sit, for example. The dog pictured here was unsure about the situation she was in (loud, unexpected noise) so I used the flash on the camera to highlight the tension in her body. We quickly redirected her after I snapped the picture so she wouldn't get more upset. 

In this picture, Roxie is relaxed and tolerating Ethan's shenanigans. There is little to no tension in her face and her body is relaxed. She is extremely tolerant and gets plenty of breaks (and treats).
See the difference in their faces? Look at the top of the head of the dog in the above picture- there are no wrinkles and her skin and hair seem to be flattened to her skull; Roxie has a couple wrinkles and her skin is actually loose looking.
-A 'hard stare', like the dog in the picture in the link below (I don't have any of my own pictures of a hard stare, sorry). The dog is staring intently and seems to be otherwise unmoving. This kind of stare from a dog would result in me dropping/tossing a treat, clapping my hands, making a kissy sound or taking one step to the side (as long as he is on leash and not reactive to unexpected movement from people)- something to distract him and break him out of it. This kind of stare is seen at times before a growl, bark or pounce. It is sometimes defined as a stare held for longer than 2 seconds. Now, this dog is laying down and seems otherwise relatively relaxed, but I'd still interrupt and have that kid moved away from the dog safely:

-If his pupils are dilated, like the dog pictured in the above link he is similarly unsure or feels threatened. Pupil dilation happens as a fear reaction because the body is trying to take in as much information as possible to find a safe escape or resolution.

-His tail is an obvious indicator, but is only part of the equation. A happy tail is a tail that is wagging loosely, in line with the body. An unsure tail is one that is tucked. A tail that is in play and/or prey mode can be held high, almost straight up. If the tail is low but wagging, he is likely conflicted. Here, Violet is happy and loosely wagging her tail level with her body. The rest of her body is relaxed and her face has little to no tension. If there is any, it's because of the frisbee that's out of the picture, which she had to put down a minute ago. 

Compare that with her tail below, tucked tightly because she doesn't want Oscar to get too friendly. If you can see her face, her pupils are dilated and she is quite wide-eyed. She even has a little bit of what we call 'whale eye'. Her eyes are wide open and you can see the whites of her eyes because despite her discomfort with the situation, she doesn't want to let Oscar out of her sight. 
I will admit that we did not move fast enough with this one- she did jump up and snap at Oscar about 3 seconds after this. I was actually looking more at Oscar than Violet in this one, so I didn't see the whole picture. Otherwise I would have had Oscar immediately moved away from her and I would not have attempted the photo. They got over it though- he's learned to be more polite and she is a bit more tolerant. 

-Avoidance- If a dog is turning or looking away from something, like Roxie is getting up and turning away from a young Ethan with a cup full of water (her Kryptonite), they need an escape. If left cornered, some dogs will resort to biting in defense. 
No worries, After I took the picture I grabbed Ethan and the water cup and let Roxie go inside to escape the terror. 

 All of that said, there's more. I'll do another post on body language next week as a follow up, but this is a good start for you. The important thing to remember with body language is that you have to look at the whole dog- not just the tail or face. You have to see everything in between too; know the situation and how the dog is when relaxed so you have a baseline. There are different levels of relaxed, excited, agitated, worried, etc. for every dog.

You have homework this week: find your dog's baseline- take pictures of your dog, in everyday situations and in situations that your dog is unsure about (as long as you have at least one other person to help out with leash handling and removal of stimuli if/when necessary). It's amazing how looking at a picture can show us so much more than we see in real life. Getting to know your dog is the first step to communicating well and making the world a better place for you both, especially if you have a fearful or reactive dog.

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