Monday, March 21, 2011

Reading Our Dog's Signals

Did you know dogs have all the same feelings that we do? They do - happy, sad, mad, scared. Can they tell us how they feel? YES. But not with words. They tell us exactly how they are feeling in their own way - with their body language. Many owners just aren't adept at reading the signals.

My husband can read them well. He just doesn't always pay attention to them.

He loves to hike with Lily. I'll admit freely he is probably the more loved parent as everything is fun with daddy. From hikes that are a grand adventure (think "map? we don't need no stinkin' map!") to treats (think "but she just looked so cute - look at that face, I had to give her a bite of my ). They almost always have a great time.


We are fortunate enough to live close to many hikes in the area we reside in. There are so many options that we could hike every single day and not run out of new places to go. We do have our favorites, though. One of my husband's favorite hikes just happens to start out right next to a shooting range for our local police. The hike goes up the hill next to the range, skirts the rim above it and drops back down in a loop. This means gunshots echoing all around you the entire hike. Not a pleasant experience if you don't like guns (me) or if you have super hearing (Lily). Last week, my husband took poor Lily on this hike, his favorite. I got an angry phone call from him later that went something like this.

"When are you coming home?"
"In about an hour. I have one more class to teach, why?"
"Because you need to ask Lily why we didn't finish the hike and I won't be hiking her anymore."
Since Lily can't communicate THAT well with her body and I'm not into dog to human charades, I went with, "Why don't I just ask you?"
"She was acting hinky the whole way up the trail."
"Define hinky."
"Scared. Her tail was tucked, her ears were back, her eyes were wide."
"Was there shooting?"
"Not that I heard." (It should be noted that my husband only hears out of one ear and not very well in that one he does have hearing in)
"So there was. Why didn't you turn around and take her somewhere else?"
"Because we love that hike."
"You love that hike. What happened?"
"When we got to the top, I took her off leash. She was okay for a few feet, then she turned to look at me and bolted back to the car."

The car is in parking lot back down this steep hill and Lily had to cross a street to get to it.

"Did you try her recall word?" (Usually he panics and forgets to)
"Yes, I did it a few times and she just kept running so I took off after her. Can you believe she did that?"

What about you, dear reader? Can you believe she did that? Or were you, like me, mystified as to why he took a dog off leash when she had given him every indication that she was scared, uncomfortable and did not want to be in that place?

I took Lily's side on this one (not really, I don't take sides, but I did understand WHY she did this) while acknowledging his anger and frustration. She gave every indication through her body language that she was afraid. This fear was ignored by the person who was supposed to keep her safe. It was no surprise to me that she headed back to the car. Whether or not there was anything that my husband thought she should be fearful of, she was and she let him know that she was.

Tail tucked, ears back, eyes wide - all clear signs that she is feeling uncomfortable and afraid.

Instead of realizing that she was scared and had tried to show him that, he was taking it personally because she defied him - this scared dog ignored her owner. Fear is a very heavy motivating factor. I've enrolled the two of them in a rocket recall class so he can over this with the trainer (who will tell him what I said, but he won't take it personally coming from her). It will be a bonding experience for the two of them and teach him what to do in situations like this (because I have no doubt that this will happen again, I married a wonderful but extremely stubborn man).

It's important for us to learn our dog's body language and imperative for us to pay attention to it. Heed the warnings. Anything from a bolting dog to a biting dog can happen if we don't know what their signals mean and don't act appropriately when we see them.


  1. Awe poor Lilz! Fear does make animals not give a rats about your commands, though. While, they can't speak to us in a detailed language, we can't explain to them WHY they shouldn't worry in situations like that. Must be pretty freaky, actually, to put your trust in someone you can't fully communicate with.

  2. We have a recall word: focus. We just started using it, and it is really helping!