A Dog's Eye View: What did you say?

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Sandra Kruczek

Dog's Eye View

This weekly column about dog training publishes on Fridays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

— “My body is betraying me.”

— Mr. Sherlock Holmes has just attempted to convince his partner, Dr. Watson, that he had not actually encountered the terrifying Hound of the Baskervilles. However, Mr. Holmes deduced that Dr. Watson saw through his words. Holmes’ body language screamed fear.

As humans, our bodies can betray attempts to mask our intent. For dogs, body language is their primary form of communication. Dogs don’t lie.

Communication is a two-way street. Usually, we notice our dogs’ early attempts at communication when we housetrain them. Your puppy may start circling or walk to the door or even stop and stare at us when he needs to potty. Housetraining is very relevant to us, so we are highly motivated to pay attention to his behavior.

Other behaviors that he offers may slip by unnoticed. Dogs read the body postures of other dogs very well. They are in constant communication. If you have the opportunity to watch two dogs play, you may begin to see repetitive behaviors. Some of these may be a “play bow” (friendly intent), lip licking (anxiety or appeasing behavior), suddenly sniffing the ground (a calming signal) and yawning (a tension reliever, anxious). If your dog looks away from you and softly blinks his eyes, he might be trying to calm down a tense situation and let you know he is feeling stressed.

Dog behaviors are context-specific, too. This means that the same behavior may have more than one meaning when in different environments. A human example might be a greeting at the mall of “How are you?” accompanied by a soft hug, contrasted with a greeting in the hospital waiting area of “How are you?” accompanied by a strong embrace and concern.

You can help your dog learn to read your body language by being consistent. Use the same signals and words each time you ask him to do something. Even a different inflection in your voice can make a difference. Years ago, I failed to qualify at an A.K.C. obedience trial because I was stressed. My tense, high-pitched voice was unrecognizable to my dog. When I said, “Ty, jump!” she just sat and looked at me. She didn’t understand what I said. When I repeated the cue in my normal tone of voice, she performed the behavior immediately.

Here are some resources that you might find interesting regarding dog/dog and dog/human communication:  

■ “On talking Terms with Dogs — Calming Signals” by Turid Rugaas

■ “How to Behave so Your Dog Behaves” by Sophia Yin, D.V.M., T.F.H.

■ “Masterpiece Classics,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” a film presentation based on the book, PBS television, May 13, 2012

Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training with more than 25 years of experience.

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