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If dogs could speak, they would probably be barking up a storm about their human pet peeves. Being pack animals, however, dogs have survived over the ages by evolving a different means of communicating with one another. It's not like human language or facial expressions. In the wild, canines developed body language and behaviors that have a calming effect so the animals can cooperatively hunt for prey, raise their young, and resolve conflicts without violence.
Dogs continued to communicate this way as they became domesticated and moved into homes, becoming one of people's favorite pets. Unfortunately, oftentimes we misinterpret these signals, by punishing our dogs when we should comfort them and by giving off body language of our own that would be considered offensive in the dog world, such as bending over or staring at them.
Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas, author of On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals (Dogwise Publishing, 2006), says that canines tend to have about 30 "calming" behaviors or signals. Since this is the only way that dogs know how to communicate, they use these signals with humans all the time -- but often we don't pick up on what they're saying.
"That is the dog's language. It can tell you how the dog is feeling, what its emotions are," Rugaas says. "You can misread the language if you do not see the signs. Then you can do a lot of damage. The dog will get frustrated. It feels that nobody understands."
Here's how to read the signs that your dog is stressed:
From Yawning to Scratching
A dog may not be saying what you think it is saying with its behavior. Take yawning, for example. Yawning to humans means boredom or tiredness. In the canine world, however, yawning "means that a dog is a little stressed or, for some reason, a little bit excited or starting to get worried," Rugaas says. Another signal of stress may be lip licking -- "like they just ate something yummy," says Nan Arthur, a trainer and behaviorist in El Cajon, Calif., and author of the forthcoming Relax Your Dog (Dogwise Publishing, 2008)
While every dog -- like every person -- will have slightly individual ways of communicating stress, experts say that most canines tend to use some of the following techniques to calm themselves or others in certain situations:
How Dogs Interpret Human Behavior
Many things that humans do can send the wrong signals to their dogs. You can create anxiety when you really just mean to be friendly. If your dog walks slowly in response to your call, think about whether or not your tone of voice is angry. If you bark out a command, your dog may lick its lips or yawn. Don't respond with a scolding, as if a child just disrespected you, but try to understand that your actions may have created stress. In order to help our pets calm themselves, Rugaas says we need to better understand the effect that our actions have on our canine friends. Here are some human actions that might stress your dog:
A dog must ultimately calm itself down, but an owner can mimic the calming signals of the dog world and stop the offensive behavior. "You can give off calming signals to show that you are friendly," Rugaas says. "But you also have to take away the reason for the dog to react to you. That's the most important thing. The dog is telling you that you are being impolite. You are not nice. You need to stop what you are doing and do it differently."
Activities to Help De-Stress
While doggie yoga classes and acupuncture sessions are all the rage, pet experts caution that those activities may ultimately backfire. Instead of relaxing your pet, classes and office visits may create stress. At the same time, while some exercise is healthy for your pup, too much non-stop exercise -- such as jogging with your dog -- may relax you, but stress out your pet.
For de-stressing that can work for pet and owner alike, Rugaas recommends taking short walks with your dog during which it can act naturally and stop and sniff around. Dogs enjoy using their senses to search and explore. Being together with other dogs to get acquainted, or to take a walk, can also be relaxing for your pup.
Arthur suggests that, instead of over-scheduling your dog with outside activities, you can provide it with some mental stimulation at home. A variety of chew toys, bones, and "food puzzles" -- toys that they have to move around to make food come out -- can be entertaining and relaxing for your dog.
"We're too busy trying to fit our dogs into our lifestyle with all this strange and unnatural stuff," Rugaas says. It's better to stick with what comes naturally to calm your dog down.
Elizabeth Wasserman, a Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer, has been writing about pets, among other topics, for more than 15 years. Her love of dogs, in particular, was handed down through the generations from her great-grandfather, Eric Knight, who wrote the book Lassie Come Home in the 1930s.
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