Where Eagles and Herons Watch Dogs (32KB)

How to Connect with Dogs

Always Start With The Dog

Watch Listen Respond

Every Companion-Dog's Wish

I propose that human-bred dogs who live with us humans share a common wish: that we, the humans they live with, should hear, see and understand their communications.

In the more than fifty years I've lived with companion dogs, it has become clear to me that dogs expect us to understand what they are telling us.

How are they to know we don't Speak Canine?

Well, they can actually see that, but I believe they trust us so deeply, probably because we really do do our best to take good care of them. When we don't clearly respond to their communications - in their own dog-terms - they probably think we are merely ignoring them.

We Can Communicate With Dogs

I don't think I'll ever forget the first time I deliberately used a particular canine calming signal with Kwali. She was my first dog to receive such an effort from me.

I was standing at a little distance from her, and, after glancing at her and meeting her eyes, I turned my head to the side, though I kept her in my peripheral vision.

Watching, I saw Kwali give me a really curious stare. So I glanced directly at her eyes again, and then deliberately turned my head to the other side, looking away, and then again for an instant, meeting her eyes, before I looked away again. Again Kwali stared at me, standing still, again with a very curious look.

I had never done this, deliberately, specifically, before. I don't know how Kwali knew the difference between my deliberate actions and any such actions I might have done casually or without knowledge, in the past, but I got a very strong feeling that indeed, Kwali knew the difference.

That was my first lesson in talking to my dog using canine calming signals.

Pursuing Dog-Connections

From then, I continued my studies with calming signals. I find there are a number of them that I use by preference. Those include, curving, so as not to approach a dog face-on, moving slowly, turning my side or back to a dog, looking away, turning my head to the side.

Communicating with two dogs at once

Since I have two dogs, I'm sometimes talking to both at once. They, also, may both talk to me at once.

A signal I learned to use with some practice is the "splitting-up" signal. Dogs use this to calm creatures who are being too rough, or too active, creating a possible danger or conflict.

Watching dogs use the splitting-up signal is a breath-taking experience. Dogs do it so very deliberately; it is extremely obvious, once you know what's going on.

For instance, they will go between two dogs who are playing too roughly with each other. The splitting-up dog approaches from the side, or from behind, so as not to create any possible face-to-face confrontation. The Splitting-Dog works its way gently between the two other dogs, and very typically, if not highly over-aroused, the other two dogs break apart,and continue along their ways, usually, with continuing sociability.

Three times, when Kumbi tore his cranial (anterior) cruciate ligament right through, and during his recovery from surgery to repair the damage, I used the splitting-up signal to avoid an impending, sudden conflict between Kwali and Kumbi.

The first time was when Kumbi tore his ligament, and, having discovered it was a seriously injured knee Kumbi and I were dealing with, I picked Kumbi up. I pick up my dogs only rarely, and when I do, it's with obvious purpose, for instance, to put the dog on my Grooming Table (Prancy's desk!) In this instance, I had thought of carrying Kumbi indoors, though he was getting around on three legs all right.

Kwali and Kumbi know the grooming routine and ritual, so there's no difficulty with my picking either of them up in this context. But here, Kumbi was clearly injured, and I had picked him up. Kwali's response was to rush in, apparently, to attack. She might indeed have attacked, though I doubt the attack would have been serious or prolonged. She would have attacked Kumbi, not me. But I didn't want her throwing Kumbi off-balance; he was off-balance enough already, and hurting.

As Kwali got close, I turned my side to her, at the same time, setting Kumbi down on the ground, ever so gently. I kept my body between Kwali and Kumbi. Kwali's attack instantly stopped.

The second occasion, weeks later, occurred when I lifted Kumbi down from his crate on Our Bed. Kwali had just then been emerging from her hidey-hole under Our Bed, where she naps on her little canvas cot that lives there. The two dogs met suddenly and unexpectedly, face-to-face. Kumbi turned to snap at Kwali, whose approach was apparently too fast, sudden, and close for Kumbi's comfort. Instead of reaching Kwali with his snap, he reached my hand, which somehow, I'd managed to get between the dogs. What a look on Kumbi's face! He seemed embarrassed. Kwali, also, had dropped back and gone sideways, to complete the diffusion of tension. This little event also reassured me about the gentleness of Kumbi's snap-bite, since my hand was fine.

On a third occasion, the dogs met suddenly by surprsie, again, face-to-face, and I merely walked between them. Again, they both calmed instantly, and that was the end of that.

Dogs don't always respond so quickly to the splitting-up signal, but one's own household companion dogs are likely to, especially if they are good buddies to start with, as mine are.

Calming Signals Aid Our Connections With Dogs

I had studied the works of Turid Rugaas for a few years before I had a sudden, very revealing lesson of their place in a dog's life.

When I first read about them, in Turid's book On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, I was quite surprised. The sketches of the signals were all very famlliar to me; I had seen them so often, with every dog I'd lived with. It's just that I hadn't understood their significance.

The idea was new to me, and I wondered if what Turid wrote could possibly actually be true. I test everything for myself, so I began to watch dogs, at home, and everywhere else I went. Sometimes, I left my dogs at home, so I wouldn't have to be taking care of them, and went out signals-hunting. I went to parks, to dog-classes. I was always welcome in the classes, because I never interfered; just watched quietly. It was several months before I was convinced that indeed, there is such a thing.

But I thought, Oh, my dogs don't use the signals, because they are terriers; their alert-alarm mechanisms are too strong for them to use such signals.

That logic of mine is so illogical that I wonder how I can ever be surprised at some other human for "being illogical" about dogs, about what they feel, how they behave. whenever I might feel tempted to believe some other human is incredibly unobservant, I need to remind myself of this so-called "observation" of mine, that my dogs weren't using calming signals.

A major way that I learn (and I recommend this to everyone), is that I question everything, including myself. So, when I said to myself my dogs don't use the signals, I questioned that, and began to watch more closely, and with intent. I was looking to see if I could see either of my dogs using the signals.

Well, sure enough, both were using the signals - often, too! They used them with each other, with me, with George, with anyone they met. They used them with other dogs. Their preferred signals include head-turning, lip-licking, blinking, turning their sides of backs, sitting down, lying down on their bellies. Kwali chooses sniffing the ground as a major signal, especially with dogs other than Kumbi; Kumbi chooses turning his side to another dog, preferably from quite close up, in front of the dog. He balances there like a ballet-dancer, striking a pose. Other dogs respond beautifully to this. Typically, they lick their lips, turn their heads to the side, and freeze in place, sometimes, leaning back just a bit. They are so kind and gentle with a small dog like Kumbi.

Once I learned my dogs do use the signals, I began to see the signals more easily. But then, one day, after returning from a seminar given by Turid, I got a really big surprise.

My Amazing Lesson

One day, George lent me his webcam. I set it up so it covered Our Bed. Kwali and Kumbi were on the bed. I let the webcam record to my hard disk for about two minutes, while Kwali and Kumbi moved around some, quite quietly.

When I watched the resulting video, I was not watching the dogs. I was watching the video. There is a difference. I was one-step-removed from my dogs that way. As I watched, my jaw dropped in surprise. My dogs were using the signals constantly.

I lost track of the number of signals they used over a period of two minutes.

I emailed Turid, and said,"But dogs are using the signals all the time! It's a constant conversation! It's not just something they use when stressed; they talk to each other with the signals."

Turid wrote back, and said that dogs can scream the signals at us, and we miss them.

I had to agree. I've seen it so often. For instance, watching obedience classes, if a handler gets a bit excited or stressed because the dog isn't performing exactly as the handler wishes, the dog picks up on the stress. If it hasn't been much punished for using the signals, it tries to calm the handler. So, the dog may move slowly. Whereupon a handler who doesn't know about the signals thinks the dog is deliberately being obstinate, especially if the class instructor says so!

Another common, and strong signal, is for the dog to turn its back on the handler. We humans are so sensitive to what we believe is failure to pay attention to us, especially if we've asked for attention, that we commonly interpret this back-turning as deliberate flouting of our wishes. Oh, my heavens! Poor dog! The dog's response is innate; again, if it hasn't previously been often-punished for using the signals, it will use them.

If we know about the signals, we can understand, and let up on the pressure on the dog, perhaps re-think our training plans. Yet the very long history of dog-training is full of various training plans that don't take calming signals into account, and dog-training instructors themselves often aren't aware of them, or may actively disbelieve in them. One fairly prominent instructor insisted to me that Turid's work was fraudulent. Dogs tell us differently, though.

One time, I want to an obedience trial, where I watched a very handsome sighthound, who had been trained partly using a shock collar. Of course, human competitors aren't allowed to use shock collars in the ring. This dog did all his handler asked him to. But he did everything at a snail's pace. I saw the extremely tense rictus - frozen grin - on the handler's face, the frustration so visible, and I thought likely, the handler believed her dog was doing all possible to embarrass her, and doing it deliberately. Had she had a notion of calming signals, she might have seen that her dog was complying, but at the same time, doing all in his power to reduce her tensions.

I doubt the viewing audience was understanding. Because I was only watching, not a competitor, I had a word with the judge after the show. I asked her if she knew about calming signals. She did. She had understood this dog's performance. I doubt the handler ever understood; her idea of dog-training had come from common sources. She was not receptive to any alternative suggestions about her dog's performance. I admit to feeling sorrier for the dog than I did for her, because I personally have little empathy for humans whose desires to compete are so strong that they lay so much stress on their dogs, without investigating possible causes for that stress. Often, they're not even aware their dogs are stressed.

Especially, though, I have no empathy for those who want their dogs always to exist for their own personal benefit or glory. Dogs have their own beings; they are living creatures on Earth, right alongside us. I think it's very sad when humans lose the possibility of the joy we can experience when dogs are joyful within their own lives, without human direction to human notions of dog-joy. Dogs share their joys with us, completely unselfishly. Their joys are greatest when they can share them with us. Some humans share joys with their dogs. Some don't read dog-joy well at all. Missing the signs of stress, they mistake many of them for joy or happiness. There is a difference, and to the trained eye, the difference isn't subtle; to see it, you have to see the whole dog's body, and put all the bodiness together into one bundle of communication. Learning the calming signals, and seeing those occur in many different environments, is what gives us the ability to read accurately and fairly completely. We can tell, too, whether a dog is stressed, and how much, if we know the signals.

Also, dogs are always willing to talk to us, unless they become so convinced we never listen that they just give up. More often, though, dogs are punished by their caretakers or handlers for using the signals, and that can prevent the dogs from using them. The loss is both to the dog, and to us, if we punish a dog who is attempting to communicate.

Dangers to Dogs

Some currently popular equipment commonly used on dogs who are being trained, or perhaps just controlled, has rather serious fallout.

Among these are prong or pinch collars, head halters, harnesses intended to prevent pulling. These work by restricting a dog's natural body movements, or even by causing the dog pain if it resists the restriction. Some of them give a handler extra mechanical leverage over the dog. Halti head-collars and Gentle Leaders fall into this dogegory. The Sensation Harness does also, as does any harness with a ring at the front of the chest, so that if the dog pulls, the dog is forcibly turned so it's facing the handler.

Large numbers of dog-trainers and handlers appear unable to comprehend that a dog who is uncomfortable in restrictive equipment may be unable to stop itself from trying to escape it, even if the struggle causes the dog pain or choking. These humans are convinced that if the dog was really hurting, or seriously choking, of course the dog would stop resisting the equipment. However, that is not how dogs' brains work. The limbic system, the emotional brain, is what is operating when a dog resists equipment that causes distress. So it is that prong collars can dig into the skin, choke collars interfere with breathing.

Our human responsibility, if we use potentially frightening equipment on a dog, is first, to teach the dog what we want; to work in safe places, with the dog free to move as it likes. We can introduce equipment gradually, in small increments, always being careful not to raise criteria too fast so the dog becomes frightened. Dogs can learn to accept tethering, collars, harnesses, and some dogs, but not all, can even accept head-halters. Those who cannot should not be forced to wear them; the cost in stress to the dog takes a heavy toll.

Using force on a dog is something that probably most of us do from time to time, though with a lot of thought and planning, along with some teaching and practice, our need to use force on a dog becomes rare, or at least, no more than occasional.

We can teach our dogs to accept certain kinds of "force" we apply with our own hands. For instance, we can touch the dog, take hold, perhaps, of a paw or leg, and guide with gentle pushes or pulls. Dogs can easily learn to accept such guidance, and cooperate with us. Once more, the secret for us is to teach this gradually, at a pace the dog accepts easily, and to use a reward-system that engages the dog's willingness and cooperation. I believe in using food the dog greatly loves - human food, for instance - for such lessons. The appeal to the dog's emotional brain is very large when we do this. The most important element is that we must never frighten the dog with our pushings and pullings.

More about force

When I take my dogs for walks, and wild rabbits appear, I use force on my dogs. I'm holding their leashes, preventing them from running after the rabbit. If I were to drop the leashes, my dogs would have at least two immediate extra risks, first, the possibility of running into the road and under a moving vehicle, and second, tangling the leash in brush and being pulled up short, with possible injury as a result.

To minimize possible injury and discomfort, I teach my dogs, as far as I can, to ease off on the leash when I say, "Wait." When there are no wild-animal distractions, my dogs are quite good at stopping and waiting for me. But let them catch the scent of a rabbit just passed, or see or hear a harmless garter snake at the side of the path - and both my dogs will take off like lightning. At that time, we experience mutual force, one upon the other. I would love to remove the leashes and allow my dogs to run free, but I don't live where that would be safe for the dogs, not to mention, maybe for other living creatures as well. So I have to make do, and so do the dogs, with what we can manage for off-leash wanderings in safe places.

Can we connect with dogs to provide lessons for them?

Yes! We humans need lessons too

First, I think about who needs what lesson, for what purpose. Maybe I don't have to teach my dogs a lot. Maybe if I keep them leashed where otherwise, they could endanger themselves or others, I don't need to teach them anything, except maybe, for my comfort and theirs, to help me keep the leashes loose. Notice that a leash is itself a connection between dog and whoever. For the last several years, I have been playing with the sensation of what might have been a dead leash, had I not learned to pay attention to the sensation of the leash in my hand, to feel my dog through it.

I've read derisive comments about dogs walking in front of their handlers, keeping enough tension on the leash so they can tell where the handler is, and pretty well, what the handler is doing. The comments appeared to suggest this was a Bad Idea, or, perhaps, Bad Behavior in the dog's part, as though the dog were somehow trying to boss us humans around.

My view, though, is that I can't imagine anything more sensible for a dog to do when holding a human on-leash, especially if the human is out of sight.

When my dogs walk behind me on-leash, as I sometimes ask them to do, I keep a light tension on the leashes, so I can tell by feel where they are and what they are doing. I think my method is brilliant. Is it not equally brilliant of dogs to do the same? of their own volition, no less?

I love having my dogs walk in front of me; I can then see what they are doing. enjoy their wonderful, beautiful DogNess, and avoid tripping over them, too. Also if they can feel me on the leash, I can, similarly, feel them. That leaves my mind and body a bit freer, so I can attend to the environment as well as to the dogs. I think it's wonderful if dogs develop attention to how the leash is feeling, so they can adjust their activities accordingly.

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