There's talk of dog whisperers and horse whisperers and ghost whisperers- wait, that last one I'm not so sure about. Anyway, people can call themselves whatever they want, but it's actually more important to hear a dog whisper than whisper to a dog. How does one listen to a dog? It actually has much more to do with observing than listening, though your ears will come in handy.Dogs are always communicating with us and we are often too ignorant to realize it because they communicate mostly in tiny signals. It's not entirely our fault that we are ignorant to these tiny things; they are tiny and fleeting and generally below our eye level. The thing is, we owe it to our dogs to try a bit harder. This guy summed it up nicely:
“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
I'll put this in more human terms to demonstrate the escalation of behaviors. In a way, dogs have three basic levels of talking to us- whispering, talking, and yelling.
Whispering is the first signal they are uneasy about something and they will try to whisper until they feel they are not being heard. Whispers are little body language signals which a dog exhibits to express their discomfort. A lot of whispers are actually displacement behaviors and calming behaviors, which are used by dogs in an attempt to diffuse stressful situations and communicate that they are not a threat to that scary stimulus.
If their whispering is ignored, dogs will try talking, which are signals that are a little more obvious (at least to the dog). Dogs will usually still offer displacement and calming signals at this point, but will probably offer more stress reactions to let you know that they want out of the situation.
When those two are ignored and the dog feels under severe stress or pressure, they start yelling. As people, we tend to wait until our dog is yelling to do anything. Dogs will no longer offer displacement or calming behaviors at this point, because they see it as pointless- they have been trying those for so long and they have been ignored so they need to protect themselves at this point. The yelling is actually what we people are great at seeing, but by then your dog is at or way over threshold and might as well be having a panic attack.
This is where people who use shock collars make their money- a dog who is way over threshold cannot be lured back with treat or toy and can't be called back with commands, just as you would not be talked out of a panic attack by someone saying "oh, it's ok, just calm down- have a cookie." That's not how the brain works. By the time a dog is that upset, they are in fight or flight mode and digestion is the last thing (literally) on their mind. Then, someone comes in with a coercive method like a physical correction. Aside from removing the dog from the situation, something like this will unfortunately be the only way to get their attention in that situation, because pain or discomfort is the only thing that will register with the part of their brain that has taken over. The problem with this method lies in the fallout- a dog is unsure of kids on bicycles, then one day one gets way too close and the next thing that pup knows, she is getting yanked around by the neck or shocked. Why on earth would she ever begin to like kids or bicycles?! That only reinforces her beliefs that kids and bicycles are dangerous. A much better method is to first know when a dog is showing little signs of stress and help them cope at that level, then gradually add in higher level stressors as long as they stay under threshold. Ideally, this is done under the instruction of a professional trainer or behaviorist. Here are a few examples of each:
Whispering: lip lick, short stare, slight head turn, scratching frequently or out of context (like in the middle of play), sniffing the ground out of context (in the middle of play or when meeting someone), leaning away, looking away, low tail, yawning, moving slowly
Talking: hyper-vigilant (looking around quickly), excessive yawning, panting when it's not hot, freezing in position, moving away, "whale eye" (looking so far in one direction that you see the whites of the dog's eyes), sudden loss of appetite, tucked tail, curved spine, dilated pupils, shaking/trembling, shaking off (this is a displacement behavior that we see frequently in play)
Yelling: lip lift, closed mouth, showing teeth snarling, growling, barking, lunging, biting
Look back over those signals. There are a lot of them, and that's just the ones we humans can easily perceive. Dogs will always use these signals before they do something like biting. The only times they don't are when they are consistently ignored or punished for whispering or talking; then they go to just yelling all the time. This is how we get dogs who seem to bit out of nowhere, or dogs who "seem fine" and then "suddenly bite". Short of a chemical imbalance, it is quite rare for a dog to go from "fine" to biting.
Usually, a dog who is just not reacting visibly is what most people see as "fine". A small dog who is very still and looking away from a big, scary dog is just "fine", right? Wrong. They are uneasy and trying to say so as politely as possible. If you don't give them some distance from that big scary dog, they will start talking louder and yelling.
I hope this gives you some insight into your dog and can help you to be a better dog owner. Don't you want to be the best possible person for a face like this?
Resources and recommended reading on this topic.
I have included so many resources on this one because I believe that understanding your dog is the most important part of owning a dog (short of feeding and medical care, that is).
Interview w/Pam Dennison on reactivity
http://www.dogcastradio.com/flashplayer.php?episode=155On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, Turid RugaasCalming Signals: What Your Dog Tells You – DVD – Turid RugaasThe Other End of the Leash – Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs, Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.Stress in Dogs, Martina Scholz and Clarissa von ReinhardtThe Language of Dogs – Understanding Canine Body Language and Other Signals- DVD’s – Sarah Kalnajs