How many of us have, in speaking about a dog, used the phrase “with no warning” or “out of nowhere” to describe an action or behavior? Most of us, probably. And those of us who haven’t used those words ourselves have certainly heard them over and over.
But here’s the thing. Most dogs actually communicate quite clearly, we’re just often not listening. Take dog-to-dog greetings, for example. Many dogs — like Chick — are shy and nervous around dogs they don’t know, and they tell us over and over. They just use their own language. If we don’t listen and they lose their trust in us to protect them from unwanted interactions, we sometimes run into problems.
Although it took us years to figure it out, Chick has some brilliantly clear signals to show us that he’s not ready to interact closely with another dog: turning his face or body away from the other dog (completely pretending it’s not there), sniffing the ground suddenly and with great interest, licking his lips, and his very dramatic and Chick-like blinking. Dogs vary in the clarity of their communication, but Chick’s signs are like neon blinking lights — he’s amazing to learn from. In each of the photos below, Chick is telling the other dog that he’s not interested in coming any closer at this time. It’s very polite, and to the other dog, very clear. The photos with the Dude were taken in the first couple of weeks they were getting to know each other, so their relationship was not yet solid and comfortable. If you study carefully, you can tell that Doodlebug was interested in being friends from the start (his body language is facing Chick and he is calm and relaxed), but he politely gave Chick the space he requested. In many cases — and this is nicely skilled dog communication — Dude even mimicked Chick’s signs to show him “I see that you are unsure so I’m going to show you that I am not a threat.” The last photo of our two boys shows this nicely. Way to go, Doodlebug.
With Dora the Explorer (the pretty blue dog), Curious Georgia (the lanky black one) and Gonzo Bunny-Ears, the feeling was less mutual — the other dog was intensely interested in being pals. In those cases, it was our responsibility to make sure that Chick had the space he needed, because after all — we need him to trust us to keep him safe so that he doesn’t feel the need to take matters into his own hands.
When we see Chick starting to show his “I’m nervous” signs, we quickly and matter-of-factly help him gain more space and distance — this applies to meeting dogs, meeting people, and trying new things. The better we get at respecting his preferences, the more safe he feels and the more calm he can remain in uncertain situations. Just over the course of fostering, we noticed a big difference. Chick is visibly less stressed in being around new dogs than he once was, because we have proven to him time and again that new dogs are not a threat to him.
For those interested in learning more about dog body language and how to build trust through reading dog communication, there’s a great book available on the subject. It’s called On Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas — we’re reading it now, and we think it’s fascinating!
Who else is going through the wonderful discovery process of learning and interpreting their dog’s body language?