Understanding Your Dog Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Understanding Your Dog

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A small dog stares quizzically at a telephone - what is he thinking?

Dogs can't speak, but that doesn't mean that they don't communicate. As a pack animal, in the wild they depend on communicating with the rest of their pack for survival.

This Entry will demonstrate how you can not only understand what your dog is trying to tell you, but will teach you how to understand your dog when he's not even trying. There are differences between breeds, so we will concentrate on the things that all dogs do, just because it's a doggy thing to do.

Your Dog's Mind

Dogs are single- and simple-minded creatures. This doesn't mean that they are stupid, they are often highly intelligent, but they can usually only concentrate on one thing at a time - even if it looks as if they are doing more than one thing at once - they aren't.

They also live in the present and don't understand the past. If they make a mess while you are out of the room, then they won't understand what you're shouting about if you come in even ten minutes later. They will genuinely have no idea what the fuss is about even if you take them to the mess and show them. This goes for chewing up the wrong thing, knocking the bin over and spreading the mess around or emptying their bladder or bowels in the house. They just won't associate your bad temper now with something they've done and forgotten about. It's a waste of your time unless you catch them in the act, and even then shouting doesn't help. You might think that they look guilty, but that's us misinterpreting submissive behaviour. The best discipline for a misbehaving dog is no-reward.

If your dog is looking at something - he's thinking about it. So if he's looking at the rubbish bin, he's thinking that there is something that smells tasty in there and might just stick his nose in if he can get away with it. If he's looking at the door to the outside, he's thinking that he'd like to go outside. We can use these simple thought processes to read his body language, which will help us to encourage the behaviour we want, and discourage the behaviour we don't.

Your Dog's Behaviour

The first thing you need, to learn to understand your dog, is time with your dog. Each dog is different, so it's no good just diving in with a new dog, or a dog that you haven't given much thought to before. So spend time with him, and watch him. You also need to understand that your dog is a pack animal, he's a social creature and if all he has for his pack is you, then he'll act with you as he would with a pack of other dogs.

As he is a social creature, much of what he does is done with the idea of attention, or touch, in his mind. He wants to be with his pack, and he wants to know that his pack knows he is there.

Recognising the Dominant Dog

Watch how he acts with you. If he puts any part of his body on top of yours, or in front of yours, he thinks he's the pack leader, and therefore in charge. To test this, sit on the floor and encourage your dog to come and sit or lie down with you. Some dogs will put their chin, or a paw, on your leg. This dog thinks he's the boss. Stand up and put him into a sit beside you. If he sits nicely with both paws on the floor, but one paw is positioned in front of your foot, even though he sat on command, he thinks he's in charge. The easiest way to stop this is to just move him off you. Move his paw or chin off your leg, and make him move his paw from in front of your foot. You're bigger than him, just be gentle. It's not his fault he's like this, it's a natural doggy urge to try to be Top Dog. If you've got a small dog who is used to sitting on your lap, he can be an exception - he still thinks he's boss if he moves his paw in front of you, but just by lying in your lap won't necessarily mean he thinks he's top.

So what's wrong with your dog thinking he's the boss? Often, nothing bad happens. But a Top Dog can suffer from separation anxiety - in much the same way as a parent would worry about a missing child. They can pull when on their leads and won't walk nicely, they can bite, run off, fight with other dogs, not let you sit in your own armchair or move around the house as you please, not allow visitors into the house, refuse to allow a man to kiss his wife, bark constantly, not let you eat your food in peace, dash outside the minute the door is open, the list goes on.

Always go through doors and gates in front of your dog. On the way out on a walk he could be very pushy and want to go first, but you need to go first to check for danger. At least, that is what your dog will think you are doing. It's always the pack leader who goes first to check for danger. If you do have a dominant dog and he is causing problems, it is possible to win back the Top Dog spot for yourself. However, that is beyond the scope of this Entry, so we recommend that you seek professional advice.

Recognising the Submissive Dog

A submissive dog is quite easy to spot. He'll often watch you while lying down, without getting up, but will probably not make much eye contact in case it is mistaken for a bid at taking over the pack. He'll roll over, showing his stomach when you bend down to pat him, or when you're angry and shouting. He'll also pat you with his paw - not to be confused with resting his paw on your leg while lying down. Puppies 'paw' their mothers, or the animals returning from the hunt, asking for food, so a dog doing this to you is submissive. He knows you have the power to give or to deny his food.

He might also try to lick your face and mouth. This is also related to food, as the young dogs lick the faces of the older ones to stimulate them to regurgitate some food. Sometimes they will let a small amount of urine out when they greet you. This is to allow you to smell that they have no intention of trying to take over as Top Dog. Telling this dog off will just confuse them, and make them produce more urine to emphasise that they accept you as the leader.

If your dog rolls over onto his back when you are telling him off, just stop right there. The dog is showing you that he accepts that you are the boss, so there's little point in carrying on, you'll just confuse and scare the dog as he doesn't know what else to do. As far as he's concerned he's offered you his life. Either take it, or move on.

Separation Anxiety

There are two reasons for separation anxiety.

  • He thinks he's Top Dog, which means that as far as he is concerned, he's as worried about you and your safety as you would be about a two year old who traps you in the house and then goes out walking the streets. He doesn't know when or if you'll come back, if you'll be in danger, or if you'll need him. He's desperate to get out of the house so that he can find and protect you. So he tries to dig a hole through and under the door.

  • He knows you're Top Dog and is frightened. He doesn't know that the door is locked and that he's safe. He thinks that anyone could come in at any moment and attack him. He's alone - an entirely unnatural state for a dog. He could be so frightened that he wets or messes in terror, he might also try to dig his way out so that he can be reunited with his pack. He might tear up your belongings, in an attempt to surround himself with your scent to make himself feel more secure. Tissues from the bin and soft furnishings are a regular target for this sort of thing, as is anything that collects dead skin cells from his owner. He might howl, or bark, as he tries to call the pack back together.

Dealing with Separation Anxiety

You might need professional help to cure your dog of his fears, but some suggestions are:

  • Don't leave your dog with the run of the whole house. Dens in the wild are not much bigger than the dog itself, so they could find it intimidating to have so much space to move around in. Try putting his bed underneath a table if possible, so that he feels secure, or buy a crate and use that as a bed. It can be covered with a blanket to make the dog feel even more protected and safe.

  • Make sure the dog has been exercised enough - if they have a lot of pent up energy this won't help. Tire them out, so they sleep.

  • Give the dog something to do - a dog toy stuffed with peanut butter and dog chews will keep them quiet for a while. There are also hollow balls for sale, that will hold dog biscuits; the dog pushes it around with his nose until the biscuits fall out.

  • Don't leave by the same door every time. If you only have one door to the street, then climbing out of the window instead can help.

  • Prepare to go out, and then don't. Repeat until the dog is completely bored with the whole idea. You can also try just walking out of the house, not even picking up a key (remember to leave a key with a neighbour beforehand), or preparing to go out as normal, leaving the house and then coming straight back in again. Repeat until dog doesn't even notice you've gone.

  • Don't make a fuss of the dog when entering or leaving the house, so that they learn there is nothing special about you going out. Leave them for short periods, not returning if they are making a noise or a fuss, and lengthen this time gradually so that they get used to you being away. Don't let them follow you around the house when you are in, make some areas dog-free zones, or leave them in one room while you do something in another.

A Wagging Tail

This means that your dog is happy, right? Wrong. It means that your dog has conflicting emotions. He wags his tail when you come home from an outing, because he's pleased his pack is back together, but also because in the past you've shouted at him when you've returned, for no reason that he can see (had he chewed up your favourite slippers when you were out once?). So he wants to come to you, but he's also frightened to, in case you shout at him again. Usually the pack instinct is stronger, and so he comes, but these emotions make his tail wag.

It can also be true of strangers' dogs that they wag their tail when they see you - they could be feeling frightened of you as a stranger and also aggressive as they want to defend their pack - their owner. Never approach a strange dog which is wagging its tail without speaking to the owner. Teach children never to approach any dog without speaking to the owner first, and don't tell them that a dog is wagging his tail because he's happy.

His Bark is Worse Than his Bite

There is a lot of truth in this saying. Barking dogs don't often bite - it's the silent ones you have to be wary of. In the wild, there's no point barking to announce you're about to bite, as all the prey would have run away. In the home, dogs bark to scare people away, or to announce the presence of an intruder into their den - the family home. If they begin to feel threatened, they may start to growl. It's quieter than a bark, and reserved for people who are close enough to hear it. If that doesn't work, they'll curl their lips and snarl - this shows their teeth and demonstrates their ability to back up their defences if necessary. If it still doesn't work they'll fall silent, and attack. Always take notice of a dog who stops barking and starts to growl, because he's trying to tell you something important.

The Play Bow

A dog who puts his front feet on the floor, and then reverses his back feet so that his front legs are stretched out in front of him and his bottom is still stuck in the air wants to play. Sometimes they do this as a stretch when they get out of bed, in which case it will be a slow movement, rather than a quick one. Usually they are play bowing to you, or someone else, as an invitation to play. Try going up to your dog and move into this posture yourself. They often recognise it, even from a human and will get very excited. Don't do it if you don't want to play though, that's not fair on the dog.

Tips and Tricks

If your dog is fascinated by your groin area, or worse, that of visitors, it's because you aren't carrying enough interesting smells on your clothes and shoes to interest him. Therefore he's concentrating his attention on the one thing that will hold information for him. Because that's what he's sniffing for, information. If you want to stop this behaviour, make sure that you pick up some nice smells for him when you're out, or keep an item aside that you can use to distract him from this perfectly normal doggy habit that is so embarrassing for humans.

When your dog meets other dogs, they don't shake hands. They sniff the undercarriage, then the rear end, and then face to face as long as they aren't restrained. Humans often think this is terrible and are so embarrassed that they won't let their dog do it. This is a mistake, as the dog picks up on the owner's concerns and, being a simple-minded soul, misinterprets them as a danger signal. Because he can't inspect the dog closely himself he trusts his owner and treats the dog as a threat. If it keeps happening, the dog will keep thinking that other dogs are a threat until eventually he'll immediately treat all other dogs as a threat and will become thoroughly antisocial. And all to save one human's embarrassment. Let your dog sniff.

Because dogs communicate by body language, they find it much easier to learn commands if they are not spoken. Gestures and movements are much easier for them to learn, but because it is not always easy for humans to get a dog's attention if the dog is not looking at them to see a gesture, then a combination of the two works well for members of both species. Not everyone understands this, so onlookers can be very impressed with your dog obeying movements or gestures. They think the dog is very clever, when in fact, it's the opposite way around.

Give your dog the correct amount of exercise for its breed. A small dog bred for show will need less walking than a small dog bred for digging rats out of holes. A Greyhound is bred for speed, not stamina, so won't need as much exercise as a Dalmatian which is bred to run alongside carriages and so has plenty of stamina. Correctly exercising your dog will make him happier, and you happier as he's too tired to chew, bark, dig, chase or pester you for food or attention.

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