Isn’t it strange that we think some of the things that our pets do are funny? I doubt we’d laugh at our children or friends if they did something embarrassing or unexpected because we’d be cautious about causing them a degree of social discomfort, but, somehow, we think it’s different if a cat or dog looks stupid wearing a Matelot outfit. This is now cemented into our social fabric with whole websites dedicated to weird and wonderful costumes for cats and dogs, but, in reality, our pets just hate it when we laugh at them. It’s hardly surprising as we treat them as if they were children much of the time and this has encouraged them to behave in a more dependent and interactive manner. That expression of resigned embarrassment that we seem to find amusing is actually their attempt to convey to us that all is not well but so often we simply miss or, worse still, ignore it. Like many people, I should own up to having annoyed my dogs without even realising it and it’s only their loyal and easy-going behaviour that allows me to brush the incident under the carpet and move on as if it never happened. Very few of our children or friends would tolerate it!
Dogs show their anxiety and upset in different ways; some will shy away from us, others may show signs of other unusual behaviours such as barking or agitation. While some things we do (such as hosing them down or visiting the vet) are unavoidable, there are a number of things that we can (and should) avoid when living in close proximity to our dogs. Here are my ‘Magnificent Seven’ – a list of things that I know will invariably upset our own dogs:
Perhaps the thing that’s hardest for us to resist is cuddling or hugging our dogs. In human behaviour, close physical contact is seen as indicative of care and affection and hugging is a sign of a special level of displayed affection that is reserved for closer contacts within our social circle. In the dog world, wrapping our arms around the dog’s neck can easily be seen as a form of constraint or as a threat. Most dogs are able to accept this behaviour from humans that they trust but not every dog actually enjoys being hugged. Most dogs far prefer that we should pat or stroke them along their back or chest although there will be some dogs that have come to understand the significance of a hug and tolerate it from their special humans. Often these special humans can be children, but it is not wise to allow children to hug dogs and certainly not when the dog and child are unfamiliar. A dog’s body language speaks volumes and we should look out for signs of leaning away, raised hackles, licking of lips or yawning – all signs that the dog is uncomfortable with this kind of interaction.
2. Relying on conversations with the dog.
We sometimes forget that our spoken language is not that of our dogs and while a dog may come to have a vocabulary (where he appears to understand a large number of words) he will do so through association and not through linguistic understanding. Just as it is with small children, we cannot reason with our dogs: telling Spot that you’ll be very cross if he does that thing again will do absolutely nothing to modify his behaviour or enhance his understanding. While dogs do not easily understand our words, they do pay far more attention to our body language and, over the millennia, they have come to be experts in reading our faces and our body language. It’s so easy to send confused signals to our dogs because in human social interaction we have come to rely on the nuances of the spoken word rather than our own behaviour, and some behaviourists believe that it can be helpful to spend a whole day communicating with our dogs without any spoken commands using just body language as a means of establishing a closer rapport.
3. Personal space.
Because body language is so important to dogs – we just need to watch two dogs greeting each other to see how this works – we also need to remember to respect their own personal space. Placing our hands on or near a dog’s face can be upsetting to some dogs and getting our faces very close to their faces can easily be perceived as being threatening – with sometimes very serious consequences. There will be times when we need to handle our dogs for specific purposes. Getting a young puppy used to gentle and slow handling of his limbs, tail and face – as well as those parts of his body that we tend to pat and stroke – will be extremely useful later in life. For dogs that may not be used to close handling, the secret is to be gentle with slow and smooth (i.e. not jerky and sudden) movements that start away from the face or paws and gradually move towards these areas as the dog becomes more confident and trusting. All the time, maintaining a respectful distance so that the dog does not perceive any threat in your actions; after all, few of us like to be suddenly patted on the head and, as humans, we can easily react badly when people do that, even if we know that the gesture is non-threatening.
4. Making eye contact.
In human terms, we are all aware of the effect of eye contact. Sometimes it can be threatening, and, at other times, it may convey an important message. In many species, eye contact is a means of establishing a dominant behaviour and we innately understand situations where that occurs in human life. Whatever the purpose, it is something that humans take seriously. Eye contact features a host of tiny signals such as the tension of the muscles around the eyes, amongst others, and (just like us) dogs have become expert at reading these signals and may often interpret eye contact as a statement of aggression. Some dogs may display a submissive response, others will respond to what they see as provocation.
When approaching a dog that does not know us, we should turn our shoulders slightly (so that we are not approaching square-on), avoid making eye contact and speak with a gentle and reassuring voice: these are all signals that we are not approaching with any aggressive intent. There are no guarantees that the dog will want to be our new best friend, but neither should he perceive us as a threat.
5. Not being allowed to be a dog!
I’m always conscious that my Labrador likes to take her time sniffing and exploring the grass and the hedges along a walk that we do at least once every day. To a human, this can be irritating as surely nothing much will have changed since we last did that walk but, to Meg, that walk is an information superhighway brimming with data about which humans and dogs have walked along there and how long ago. Meg will investigate the same rabbit holes every day and will prefer to do that rather than play with a ball or chase Isla, our Spaniel. She is oblivious towards my concerns that we may be late or otherwise in a hurry and simply wants to indulge her amazing sense of smell by gathering all the available data, even if that takes several minutes, apparently rooted to the same spot and oblivious to rain, sleet or snow. For us, the walk is often perceived as a duty exercise call or often just a toilet break, but, for our dogs, this walk may be the very best part of their day and they just hate being hurried up. Just like humans, dogs need mental and sensory exploration as well as exercise and an established routine.
You could set your watch by Meg’s activities at five o’clock every evening but I’m pretty certain she cannot tell the time with a clock! She does know, within a few minutes, when it’s teatime and she’ll come and tell me, whatever I’m doing, with the expectation that her food will soon appear. Both dogs know that they get straight out for a toilet break when one of us comes into the kitchen first thing in the morning and that events will happen in a certain, familiar order. We set great store by training our dogs to obey certain commands and, just as we have expectations of their behaviour, they also understand structured rules and a regular routine. Changes to these rules can be confusing for a dog and, similarly, changes to their routine can be upsetting. As humans, we may not like arguments or raised voices, but we’ve come to understand that problems often blow over and that normal service can, usually, be expected to resume at some stage. Dogs don’t have that understanding and raised voices between humans are indistinguishable to the dog from chastisement and punishment for him. Dogs sense our emotions remarkably well and do not usually respond well to shouting or punishment whether it is intended for the dog or for another family member. The most successful training is usually associated with positive reinforcement rather than mental or physical dominance, but, then, isn’t that the same for all of us too?
7. Strong perfume and loud music.
The dog’s olfactory system, which is able to detect smells in the most minute quantities, is something close to miraculous and provides one of the skills that man has most harnessed over the ages. We use this skill in myriad ways from law enforcement through to medical detection: using dogs that are able to sniff out certain diseases, often at an early stage. Why, then, do we forget that the strong smells we choose to wear as perfume or aftershave can cause mayhem with our dogs’ noses? We often choose to mask one smell with another – in the case of air fresheners, essential oil burners and such like – to provide what we perceive as a ‘good’ rather than a ‘bad’ smell within a social context. For our dogs, this is far from a good thing and will often result in them seeking out another part of the house in an attempt to escape from the strongest concentrations of smell; moreover, the strong air fresheners that we might use in cars to mask the smell of wet dog can be more distressing because there is nowhere to go within the car to escape!
Dogs also possess an excellent sense of hearing, so, similarly, whilst playing loud music in the car or at home may make us feel good and improve our mood (or simply provide a few moments of escape from daily routine), our dogs can find such loud noise distressing – or even painful – and it should be avoided.