I was listening to an audio book recently that was written in the late 1800s, and in one scene, the kids of the town got all excited because of the colourful handbills that appeared advertising a circus coming to town. Now, I am not keen on circuses, however in that era they were rare and exciting events, and when the handbills started to appear, the information spread throughout the town like a wild fire. Everyone talked about it for days. The first clue that a circus might be coming in fact happened long before the handbills were posted. The first hint of a circus was when a character from another town arrived in town and mentioned that he had seen the circus several days earlier packing up to get on rail cars in a distant town. The rumour mill went wild! Next came a letter from a friend in a town a little closer talking ab out plans to attend the circus that was coming to their town. In fact all through the book that was not about circuses at all were mentions here and there, whispers, rumours and hints about the circus coming to town. This was such an exciting event for the characters in the book, that it was mentioned over and over again, and there was an escalating tension that the circus was coming to town!
When I walk into my training school, I am super sensitive to the expressions on the dog’s faces. There is Fido, looking regal if a little worried in puppy class. Is someone going to grab him and scare him? He is a little worried about strange men and sometimes John the Puppy Guy is a little scary to him. And Fluffy. Fluffy is a happy go luck soul who is never phased by anything. She is loose and floppy all over and you could pick her up and open her mouth and look in her ears and she would still be loose and floppy and happy all over. I see Ralph. Ralph is an instructor favourite; he is mischievous and silly and always looking for an opportunity to pull a prank like untying shoelaces or finding the ONLY treat left in your pocket…from the outside in. I see the dogs and their facial expressions are sort of like the rumours of the circus coming to town. I don’t need Fido or Fluffy or Ralph to be extreme to know how they are going to react. I hear the rumours and I know a little bit about what is coming up without having to go into more detail.
Contrast this with my students. Fido’s family is constantly surprised that Fido is afraid. Fido cannot give them a rumour of how he feels. Fido has to hire a neon sign, send them emails and then get a brass band before his family recognizes the signs. By the time that Fido’s family is aware of his fear, he is over threshold and may have peed on the rug. They don’t hear the rumours of what Fido has to say, so they cannot respond to what he needs in time to head off a problem.
I have been working professionally with dogs for over 25 years, and at first, I didn’t hear the rumours either. In fact, I could be downright cruel in my insistence that my canine partner was “fine”. The fact is that the majority of dogs I knew were more like Fluffy than like Fido. They never put up handbills announcing that the circus was in town because they didn’t need to. They weren’t that concerned about things. They weren’t going to produce a circus at any moment. Fluffy doesn’t give off a whole lot of subtle signals because for the most part, Fluffy is happy go lucky and either doesn’t care about the things that concern Fido.
And what about Ralph? Ralph’s people are just plain fed up! Yesterday Ralph climbed on the dining room table, grabbed a plastic bottle of ketchup, and ran through the house with it. No one noticed him initially, but eventually he punctured the bottle and left dots of ketchup on the rugs throughout the house everywhere that he dropped the bottle. He settled down in an upstairs bedroom and completely decimated the bottle, leaving bits of plastic all over the room, accented with streaks of ketchup on the bed, the desk, the chair, the dresser, up two walls and on the door. Ralph finished his handiwork with pawprints in ketchup down the hall and into the bathroom.
Ralph is a bit like Dennis the Menace. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He is not intentionally getting into trouble, but his communications are so subtle that his family doesn’t notice that he needs something in time to head off disaster. He is curious and engaged in his world and he has no idea that his behaviour is unwanted or unsafe. The interesting thing is that some of his behaviour, like racing through the house or not settling are rooted in confusion, a lack of training or anxiety. Ralph is unable to ask to go out, so even though he had a good start at toilet training and only toileting outside, his people didn’t notice the rumours of his need, so he had to look somewhere else to go. His first efforts included peeing in front of the family on the rug, but that made the people angry and that frightened Ralph. Ralph bolted because he was frightened, and learned two things. First, he learned not to pee in front of the family and second, he learned that when he was uncertain, anxious or upset, running would relieve that feeling. Some running leads to more running and pretty soon, Ralph was running through the house all the time.
Ralph also learned some other lessons inadvertently. He learned for instance that there are many fun games for puppies if you don’t shout loudly when you are playing. He learned that being in the same room as his family meant that he wasn’t allowed to do these fun things. Things like getting on the dining room table. Ralph learned that he doesn’t need to spread rumours because he can take care of things himself and do all the fun stuff he wants if he doesn’t communicate too much.
In all three cases, the family will have a better relationship with their puppy if they learn a little bit about their dog’s body language. In Fido’s case, he will be less fearful. In Fluffy’s case, the family will become more aware of the big things because they are not usually big things for Fluffy. Taking her needs into account will give them an even bigger world to explore together. And in Ralph’s case life will just be a whole lot less chaotic.
Almost everyone recognizes the brass bands and circuses of their dog’s communication. The dog who barks and lunges wants space. The dog who cringes and cowers is afraid. The dog who bounces through life like a rocking horse come to life is happy and relaxed. But what about the rumours? What about the quieter signals? What do they look like?
Freezing is a signal that most of us see but don’t see. It is a rumour so it is easy to disregard. Your dog sees something and he pauses, or freezes and most of the time, once he identifies what it is that he is looking at, he moves right on. The freeze is like a decision point. It is a point where the dog identifies something as relevant, but not necessarily as important. When we see this happening, we should take note. Fido freezes a lot because his world is pretty scary. Fluffy freezes rarely because she is much more confident, so when she freezes we should take note that something fairly important may be going on for her. Ralph freezes rarely because he doesn’t often stop to look at things; his response when the other two puppies would freeze is usually to bolt without thinking.
Yawning and shaking off as though wet when they are dry are two other subtle signals that dogs use to show us that they are overwhelmed in one way or another. These are more of the rumour type of signals; they can fade into the background when you aren’t paying close attention. Fido does this a lot and it often gets disregarded because his people often think he might be tired. The dad in Fido’s family explained the shake off as Fido being dusty! Fluffy only yawns when she is tired or shakes off when she is wet. And Ralph is such a busy boy that his family hasn’t noticed him doing either behaviour. It is hard to observe a dog who is conspicuously absent.
One thing that we are often frustrated with as instructors is when a client says to us “but he does that all the time” when we try and share what we know about what dogs are saying through their behaviour. When you cannot read the rumours, you may not realize how often your dog is in distress. When we point this out to you, we don’t do that because we dislike you or your dog; we do so because we recognize that your dog is upset and we want to help. Dog body language is a long study; we will never be as good at reading it as the dogs are, but there are many good resources. A favourite is Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behaviour A Photo Illustrated Guide. You can find it at https://www.dogwise.com/canine-behavior-a-photo-illustrated-handbook/ . I helped to edit that, so I know that the images and text are well laid out and well explained. Another good resource is The Language of Dog DVD. You can also find that on Dogwise at https://www.dogwise.com/the-language-of-dogs-understanding-canine-body-language-and-other-communication-signals-dvd-set/ .
In the story that started me thinking about this blog, the message that a circus was coming to town started out as a whisper, a rumour. Then it was talked about a little bit. In the end, it was a big hairy deal. The handbills were printed and everyone went down to the train station to see the arrival. The whole town talked about the circus and a brass band was on hand to make sure that everyone knew that the circus had arrived. It is well worth spending some time learning more about what your dog is “saying” since he is going to be talking to you through his behaviour for the rest of his life. When we hear the whispers of what your dog wants to say to you, instead of depending upon the brass band level of message, we can often avert the circuses that ensue when the dog feels he needs to get the message across immediately. Your dog should not need a brass band to tell you when he is afraid, distressed or upset, and both your life and his will be much easier when you can address his issues quickly and efficiently because you heard the first rumours of what he is experiencing.