No, I am NOT OK

Despite thousands of years of coexistence humans are, for the most part, surprisingly inept at understanding their dogs’ language, a language which is largely physical. Dogs, for the most part, are whizzes at knowing when they need to wag and suck up, or turn tail and get the heck out of dodge when it comes to interacting with people. Problems arise when the cultures clash and what a person means is not what they say or what a person hears is not what their dog is shouting at them. Often the problems are minor and easily corrected. Others are not so minor and the dog usually suffers the brunt of the solution.

My nephew and his wife were visiting, I was hoping bells would ring and birds would sing when they met Tooie, my current foster dog. Both dog lovers, I knew Tooie would be in a good home were they to want him. Tooie is a sturdy, resilient pup of 5 months or so. During a walk my nephew called him and Tooie raced up next to him looking up expectantly. My nephew reached down and gave him nice head tussling in return. The next time he called Tooie, the dog did not race up to him. That head rub was not something the little dog wanted to repeat. Obvious to me as I watched it all play out, but perhaps not so obvious to a pet owner who thinks they are doing one thing, but in the dog’s eyes, it’s another.

I was briefly involved with a group of chihuahuas who were rescued from a breeder. A number of the dogs were shy and fearful. One, a black, long-haired cutie, who showed promise for picking up skills, was being fostered in a home with a mom and two young daughters. When questioned about how the dog was doing after her arrival in their home, the mom responded that she thought the dog was doing well. The next day the dog fled through an open window and has not been seen since.

What can look ‘ok’ to a person might be a dog who when given the chance would choose to jump off a bridge to escape from their suffering. Shut-down and scared can look a lot like calm and submissive if you get your dog reading information from bad TV programs. A dog may be able and willing to explore and sniff but still not be happy being where they are. When Sunny finally was able to get himself off the floor of the backseat of the car and stick his head out the window I was sure he was relishing the breeze until he stepped on the window control and jumped out. Had he been plotting an escape the whole time I thought he was enjoying himself?

A scared, shy dog who does not behave aggressively is often forced to do more than a dog who has long since learned to put his foot down (and bare his teeth) and insist to be left alone. This doesn’t mean they are prepared for more. Dogs’ body language can be subtle, but when you know what to look for, it’s clear and obvious. Learn to read your dog and when you do, believe what they are telling you.


25 comments so far

  1. Melf on

    Yet another powerful post. I know that I have often misread my dog’s cues in the past. And even now, knowing what I know about dog behavior (not much!) I still sometimes overlook those cues. Usually because I am in a hurry or distracted, but I always seem to realize it after the fact and will take it out to re-examine it. What did I do? What did they do? What was the real message they were sending me in that moment. I think the truth is that it takes time and patience and a lot of quiet observation skills to realize what our dogs are telling us. Most especially the quiet, fearful ones.

  2. Louisa on

    Very Good and some very important information there x

  3. J.M. Stewart on

    Its especially frustrating when dealing with so-called experts that can’t read a dog properly. I recently pulled a Rottie from animal control partly to keep her away from an inept trainer that kept commenting on how beautiful and “submissive” she was. The Rottie would roll over in front of people, but was hand reactive. She rolled over when people reached for her and tensed up as hard as a rock. I knew that this person would get themselves, or worse, someone else bitten if I didn’t take her.

    She’s coming along nicely. Really a very loving dog. Thanks for the article. I will share it!

  4. Janet Finlay on

    Another astute post – thanks. The more aware I become of the signals dogs give, the more I see how much dogs struggle. The dog walking quietly down the street with its owner – no pulling, clearly being “well behaved” – yet its flattened ears, tucked tail and stiffness through the body give away how much fear it has. The dogs in a training class clearly considered to be “trained” but showing increasing signs of stress as they obviously don’t know what is expected of them. You are right – we are so bad at reading dogs. I am coming to the conclusion that teaching how to read dogs is among the most important things to include in basic dog training.

    • fearfuldogs on

      There’s a price we pay for knowledge. It’s hard to look at dogs and not see how hard many try, and how little assistance their handlers give them.

    • melfr99 on

      I agree with you Janet. I think reading a dog’s behavior should be taught in training classes.

  5. KellyK on

    “Shut-down and scared can look a lot like calm and submissive if you get your dog reading information from bad TV programs. ”

    Oh my gosh yes! I made this mistake when we got Diamond, thinking she was “calm and submissive” or “chill and relaxed” when she was really just shut down and terrified. At least we knew enough to give her some space and not try to force her out of her crate to interact with us.

    I think I’m much better at telling the difference between the scared shut-down and the relaxed one now. (She tends to sprawl, often on her side, when she’s happy and relaxed, and she seems to pick more open places to sleep. Like, if she’s hiding from company, she’ll get in the corner between the bed and the wall, while she usually naps on the dog bed that’s in front of the bed and closer to the door.)

    • fearfuldogs on

      You hit the nail on the head and that is ‘know your dog!’.

    • melfr99 on

      Kelly – It sounds like your Diamond is like my Daisy. Same way I tell how she’s feeling.

  6. megan on

    I wish more people understood this. Even when explained, people don’t seem to get it. The best way I’ve been able to explain it so far that seems to help people understand is by relating the dogs to kids in school…. a fearful dog that shuts down is a lot like the depressed kid in school who quietly harms himself, whereas the dog that shows aggression is more like the very insecure kid who bullies and hurts others. Both kids need help — they just show it differently. It’s not a direct parallel, but people sort of go, “Oh…. wow, I never thought of it like that.”

    • fearfuldogs on

      Always good to have more ways to try to explain that dogs suffer from emotional distress too. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Donna and the Dogs on

    “Shut-down and scared can look a lot like calm and submissive if you get your dog reading information from bad TV programs. ”

    I know someone who is following methods from such programs, and it is really sad to see the dog is actually always wary of the owner, and can’t do anything, because it might get “Sssst” at. The moment said person leaves the room, the dogs entire demeanor changes. Just sad.

    • KellyK on

      Poor dog. That’s always really sad to see.

  8. melfr99 on

    Well poop! I submitted my comment right away this morning via my Blackberry and it didn’t show up. I can’t remember all I said, but I wanted you to know I loved this post. I know a lot about dog behavior, but not as much as I want to know.

    But, what I have learned is that watching my dogs and absorbing what they are saying by their body movements and reactions makes me a better owner. I spend more time mulling it over and analyzing from different directions. It’s so easy to make assumptions about a dog’s behavior (just look at how many people assume a wagging tail means a dog is friendly), but what I have learned is that it requires much more of me listening and watching than talking and doing. If I had to give advice to folks it would be that, especially with fearful dogs. They need us to pay attention so much more than the average dog.

    • KellyK on

      Yep, lots and lots of listening and watching is hugely important.

      Tail wags are a huge example of something that *might* mean friendly or happy, but also might not. When you start observing, you only see one thing, but as you do it more, you see lots of things. How big is the wag, what’s the facial expression, what’s the body position?

      My dog has three distinct tail wags (maybe more). There’s the happy, relaxed swing while walking, the whole-back-half of the dog bounce when I come home (usually accompanied by running around and/or play bows), and a small tail twitch that she does when she’s interested in something, but maybe slightly nervous or confused.

      I also think that even when the tail wag really is friendly, people take that as more of an open invitation than it is. Sure, my dog is interested in people and now gets excited when she sees a new person. (With her shyness, this makes me very happy.) That doesn’t mean she wants to be patted on the head, or mobbed by a big group of kids.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Yes, people seem to assume that any dog is open to being touched. I know I did.

  9. Lizzie on

    With a dog, what you see is what you get. They don’t pretend how they feel, trouble is a lot of people just don’t get it and or can’t be bothered, (or haven’t got the time) to do the work that is required, even if their dog is not fearful or nervous.

    No two dogs are the same, and as you say Debbie, you must get to know your dog and vice versa, to establish a relationship and avoid misunderstandings.

    Gracie is a quirky dog and also has OCD which complicates things and although she has made considerable progress since she had been with me, I never forget that fundamentally it is fear that rules her. Whilst I feel that she has now learned skills to help her cope with scary situations, and she does appear to behave more like a ‘normal’ dog for the most part, I never become complacent because it would be foolish of me to put her in situations that I KNOW she would find difficult to cope with.

    BTW my knowledge has come largely from the wondeful Ms Jacobs and as I’ve said many times, I will always be grateful.

    Aah, if only all owners would take the time it requires to be successful with their dogs, and if not, then IMO they should not have one!

    Dogs cannot speak English, so we have to learn to speak DOG; simples 🙂

    • melfr99 on

      Lizzie – Can completely relate to what you said about Gracie – “I never forget that fundamentally it is fear that rules her. Whilst I feel that she has now learned skills to help her cope with scary situations, and she does appear to behave more like a ‘normal’ dog for the most part, I never become complacent because it would be foolish of me to put her in situations that I KNOW she would find difficult to cope with.” It is the same with Daisy. And, I too have learned a lot from Ms Jacobs! 🙂

      • fearfuldogs on

        Hey, you make me keep wondering why you’re all talking about my mother! I’m just sharing the information I’ve gleaned from far better trainers than myself. I know how challenging it is to live with challenging behaviors in dogs.

  10. Lizzie on

    Excuse me, are there any better trainers out there than you Debbie, specifically ones who understand fearful dogs as well as you do?

    I found your website and bought your e-book at a time when Gracie’s behaviour had completely overwhelmed me and I felt utterly lost in the complexity of it all. As I read the book, I felt even more daunted as I never thought that I would be able to teach Gracie what she needed to know in order to change the way that she felt.
    However that was what now seems a very long time ago, and both Gracie and I have learnt an awful lot together. She is more relaxed and dare I say, confident and I have learnt a wonderful thing called patience, taking a deep breath and one day at a time.

    Debbie, don’t ever think that you are ‘just’ passing on information. You are one dedicated lady and I know that there are plenty more dog owners besides me who couldn’t have done it without you.

  11. Kay Liestman on

    Debbie, you are doing a wonderful thing with your blog. The major thing for me is that I feel much less alone in dealing with Mattie. Knowing that some of the things we’ve been told to do with her don’t “feel right” is reinforced by your information. She’s made so much progress in the 18 months we’ve had her. One thing that she’s done is show us what she needs in interactions with people on walks and while traveling. She always tells us what she needs–the problems we have are when we don’t listen. We have a long way to go, but Mattie, my husband and I have a much better partnership because of the insights we’ve gained from you. Thank you!

    • Debbie on

      Thank you for taking the time to say this. I appreciate it.

      Sent from my iPod

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