If you were approached by someone speaking Tamil, Russian or Swedish, would you easily understand them? Would their attempts at communication set you and the other person up for success? What if they used social cues reflecting cultures you didn’t know? Would it make it easy to work together as a team?
Probably not without a little help. Communication is clearer when parties use the same language and when they follow the same social cues. The more languages and cultures we understand, the more powerful our ability is to connect with others.
Some languages are difficult to master, but “DOG” isn’t one of them…despite some unique social cues. When people understand canine body language and when we honor canine social rules, we communicate better with the dogs in our care. We also prevent common behavioral issues, including (but not limited to) stranger reactivity, aggression, resource guarding and certain types of barking.
Canine body language is rooted in posture, position, movement and energy, and dogs interpret our posture, positions, movement and energy (in quantity and quality) in the context of their species.
1. Reach straight down (& not out!)
Even dogs that are familiar with you may hesitate to come close if you reach out for them. This is where a slight adjustment in direction and posture can make a huge difference. Turning to face the same direction as the dog before taking a short step away with few taps of your hand against your leg encourages him to approach to your side, so you can then reach down for him (as opposed to reaching out). With small dogs, crouching helps. You moving to allow side–by–side positioning sends a more inviting and less intimidating message than standing still and reaching out ever will. Add a gentle “Come here, sweetie,” and most dogs will happily approach.
2. Pass small dogs between people back first
Ask any Chihuahua. Hand–held dogs hate being passed face–first to other people, and many get quite reactive as a result. Face-first movement pushes a dog into another’s personal space, and it disregards polite canine “smell my butt” social cues. Passing a small dog back first avoids these issues while allowing the original holder to be a calming point of reference. It is safer for everyone involved and less confrontational for the dog.
3. Put owner–protective dogs on your team
The concept of being ‘on the same team’ is important to dogs. When dogs walk or stand side–by–side, the psychology is a lot like a school of fish, a football team or a family. There is the spirit of unity, of security, of togetherness, and of ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction.
This is especially true of owner–protective dogs, both large and small. Complicating their natural wariness is often the nervousness of their owners. Walking up to these dogs face–to–face with your hand out for their leash, even with your posture calm and confident, is never the best idea because your position places you on another team.
What is the answer? Simple repositioning, to place the dog and his owner on your team! For example:
Vet Tech: Hi Sam. Welcome back to our clinic. I see Zeus is ready for a nail trim.
Sam: He needs it badly, but I’ve been afraid to bring him in. He hates his feet being touched and I don’t want any of you to get hurt.
Vet Tech: Smiling because Sam’s attention has shifted off his 110–pound Rottie to her, and he’s transmitting less concern down his leash to his dog. No problem. Zeus is usually a big mush once he gets in the back with us.
Sam: So you say, but he doesn’t want to leave my side right now.
Vet Tech: That’s okay. To let him see he doesn’t have to be protective of you, I’d like you to walk him around me and stop at the point where he’s standing between us and we’re all facing the same direction. Sam does this as the Vet tech continues a light conversation and eye contact with Sam. She knows his movement and relaxation will put Zeus more at ease.
Vet Tech: Excellent! Now let’s just stand side–by–side for a few seconds so Zeus can be comfortable with you adding him to my team. 5 seconds pass.
Vet Tech: Zeus appears so much more relaxed right now. I’d like you to pass me his leash, but remain standing where you are for a few more seconds. Then I’d like you to walk to a spot 10–15 feet across from us and turn to face us. Sam does this, leaving the vet tech and Zeus standing side–by–side, on the same team. The veterinary staff can now direct a much more relaxed Zeus to the exam room.
Passing the leashes of owner–protective dogs while standing side–by–side, facing the same direction and having owners walk away to leave their dogs ‘on your staff’s team’ is so much safer (and canine–intuitive) than reaching for a dog’s leash while standing across from his owner.
4. Play the muzzle game!
Some dogs accept handling better when wearing a comfortable muzzle, especially when this relaxes the nervous or fearful energy of the people around them. That said, how we introduce a muzzle can make a huge difference. Do we slip a muzzle over a dog’s nose, snap its clasp, carry on with our work and whip the muzzle off when we’re none? We don’t. What kind of message would that send to the dog? How would that set him up to be relaxed around us and happy to wear a muzzle in the future?
When it comes time to put a muzzle on, we make the experience into a pleasurable game. We use our palmed muzzle as a vessel to feed small biscuit pieces until the dog readily sticks his nose in it to get treats. We rub some whipped cheese on the nose end and, sitting or standing next to the dog (not in front of him), we let him lick a lot of it off before we slip the muzzle over his nose and take it off with a soft “good boy” and a big smile. We put it on again and then remove it with the same quiet praise.
This on/off game is repeated several times until the dog accepts the muzzle in a calm manner, at which point we snap it behind his ears, give him a short massage, take it off and put it on again, this time snapping the buckle for good. We are creating trust and good associations through repetition, the better for him to be comfortable with a muzzle in the future.
With dogs that come to us with very strong negative associations with muzzles, we ask their owners to purchase a ‘happy muzzle’ online and play our muzzle game at home prior to their trip to the clinic. It changes everyone’s perception of a muzzle from negative to very positive.
What is commonly called ‘socialization’ gets dogs used to the way humans do things—such as the way we look directly at others, reach toward them and approach their personal space with a lot of conversation but without allowing time for a good sniff—but it doesn’t make any dog less of a dog. “DOG” will always be his first language, with “HUMAN” a distant second (and dogs view some of the things we do as quite rude). Using canine–intuitive (nose–first, moving, non–verbal and indirect) social cues will always make dogs more comfortable than using human ones. Dogs don’t have to think about them. They don’t have to “get used” to them. Rather, their relaxed response comes naturally.
Also keep in mind that all of the above are only suggestions and may not apply to all situations or be able to be executed in cases of extremely aggressive dogs. Safety first!
The more we, as veterinarians and veterinary healthcare team members, learn about canine culture, social cues and non–verbal communication (that is: how dogs view our posture, positions, movement and energy), the more skilled we can become when working with a variety of dogs. The bonus is, canine culture has a lot to teach us!
Rooted in balance (as opposed to drama and trauma and who–said–what–to–whom), canine culture likes to seize the moment, and when the moment isn’t so great, it gets moving, both physically and psychologically, to move on to better things. +