Last time I talked about talking to my dogs. This time I want to talk about listening and more importantly hearing what they have to say. Dogs are non verbal species. This means that they can only tell us things by their behaviour. It is easy to miss the conversation altogether if you aren’t paying attention and this is an important component of having a successful relationship. Dogs and other non human learners have a lot to say, if we just listen.
This morning when I woke up, D’fer, my elderly Chesapeake was in my room, lying by the bed and panting. And panting and panting and panting. As I became more aware of the day, I tuned into him and I could see that he was obviously in distress. As a non verbal species, it is really tough to figure out what was distressing him, but I can make some good guesses. He is old and often painful, so a good guess is that he was in some pain this morning. He had a heart murmur that resolved, but it could be that he is having heart issues again. We have had a pretty significant weather change today, from cold and wet to hot and humid, so maybe that is what is going on. Noticing what he is doing, I have some choices; I can get up and see if he needs some pain meds, or I can roll over and go back to sleep.
Imagine for a moment that this was your spouse and you woke up and he or she was breathing heavily, and obviously in distress. What would you do? Perhaps waking him up and checking in might be a good idea. Or perhaps you know that your spouse normally breathes like this in the morning and you just need to nudge him to roll over and you can both have a lie in. What about if this was a newborn? Or your aging grandfather? Knowing something about those who surround you is an important part of “hearing” what they say.
The above example is one where my dog’s behaviour was not one of choice and it is up to me to first off notice and secondly to choose the right action. The action I took was to get up, toilet him and get him his meds. He is on daily pain medication and he needed his next dose. Not all of what the dog tells me is because of his physiology though. Some of the dog’s behaviour is about things that he wants or needs.
When Eco my German Shepherd goes to the gate and looks out at the geese on the pond, I know he would like me to open the gate so that he can go chase geese. He will stare longingly at the geese through the gate, look back at me and then look back to the geese. If I open the gate, he will chase the geese into the sky. Eco thinks that chasing geese is terrific. If it is fall and the geese are not nesting, or if it is spring before the geese nest, I sometimes let him do this as it prevents the geese from eating all of our pasture. If the geese have goslings though, I will tell him that it is not his turn and he will sadly turn away from the gate. In effect we have a conversation, where he tells me what he wants and I tell him if he can have it or not.
My dogs have ways to tell me a good number of things. Some of them are things that I have taught them to do and some of them are things that they have picked up on their own. If I am watching a movie, D’fer may come up and sit in front of me and if that doesn’t cause me to share then he will turn on his sad Chesapeake act and if THAT doesn’t work, he will rest his chin on my lap, because that almost always works. D’fer knows how to ask politely, and then with some emphasis and finally he will beg. He knows that I rarely refuse him if he is truly being cute!
D’fer was trained to alert me to medical events; he would tell me if I was about to get a migraine or have a panic attack. Without getting into how we trained that, if the conditions were right for me to get ill, he would “tell” me by flipping my arm with his nose, or by putting his feet on my chest. He would tell me that I needed to take medication and I would do as told! This is more of a one way directive, but it is communication indeed.
Today in one of my privates we were working with a dog who has some serious issues with other dogs. We were working to teach him that he can approach without losing his cool. A big part of what we do in that sort of exercise is to “listen” to what the dogs are telling us. Every time this dog would get too close to the trigger dog, he would give a big lip lick. This “tell” or piece of body language would let me know that he was as close to the other dog as he could get without losing control of himself. Listening to what the dog was saying helped me to know when to send the owner back to the safety station. Lip licking is one of a raft of behaviours that dogs do when they are stressed; called displacement behaviours. These behaviours tell us that the dog is approaching a threshold of some sort and that we need to slow down. They can tell us when the dog is distressed or upset or when they need a break. Knowing your own dog and knowing how they tell you that they are over the point at which they are comfortable is an essential part of being successful with your dog. If you don’t respond when your dog is telling you these things, then your dog will think he has to face the world on his own steam. This degrades your relationship because your dog will learn that you won’t listen to him.
I have successfully helped several people teach their dogs how to tell them that they need a break in more concrete ways. One dog on my caseload learned to say “Go/No Go” for taking treats from strangers. The concept was really simple, but the ability to communicate that is behind this concept is fairly abstract. First we taught the dog to touch a target. Then we established two targets; one for “Go” and a very different target for “No Go”. If the dog randomly touched the “Go” target, he got a treat. If the dog randomly touched the “No Go” target the person offering the treats backed off and took the treats with them. This dog, a Scottish Terrier named BJ, amazed his people because he would sometimes turn down treats that he normally really liked depending on who was offering the treat. This gave BJ the ability to say when he was ready for interactions with new people, and by being able to say no when he was not ready, he was able to expand the number of people he could tolerate both offering him treats and eventually touching him.
Communication is a special ability that we can use with our dogs, if we are willing to be open to listening to what they have to say. We have to be aware of who our dogs are, what they say and how they say it, and then respond appropriately. Even if the response is “not now”, responding regularly and appropriately is an important way to deepen our relationship with our dogs.