How Do I Understand What My Dog is Communicating?

When Victoria Craig adopted her dog Weaver, the 18-month-old, black-and-white Border Collie had already developed a host of obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Highly reactive with zero impulse control, Weaver would go into a spinning frenzy whenever something as seemingly insignificant as a person walking across a room disrupted his usual routine.

On the positive side, it was clear Weaver was a smart, sensitive, and loving dog. “I thought he was gorgeous and could see such potential in him,” says Craig, who lives in River Glade, New Brunswick, Canada. “But he hardly noticed me at all, even when I was trying my best to interact with him. He refused my treats and looked away each time I tried to talk to him.” Traditional training methods produced some results, but it was professional dog trainer Brenda Aloff’s Get Connected training philosophy that put Craig and her Collie on the path to developing a strong and stable relationship.

The Get Connected Philosophy

Aloff’s training method, detailed in her book Get Connected With Your Dog: Emphasizing the Relationship While Training Your Dog (Dogwise Publishing 2008), promotes improved communication. “Get Connected is a program I developed to help humans understand dogs and help dogs understand their humans,” explains Aloff. “Better communication, mutual understanding, and clear interactions always enhance a relationship, and this is what Get Connected is all about.”

Tapping Into the Magic Switch

Getting connected helps you find what Aloff refers to as the “magic switch.” The magic switch is a dog state of awareness that’s at the heart of why canines do what they do, according to Aloff. When Weaver goes from calm to manic in a nanosecond, it is just reacting instinctively. Dogs in this mental state are so excited; they can’t think as they usually would. They are not in a state of mind to learn or comprehend anything, even a relatively simple command, such as “Come,” “Stay,” or “No barking.”

When dogs are in a more conscious mind frame and not merely acting on instinct, they can learn. Understanding the different emotional states and which your dog is in at any given moment is an essential part of getting connected. Grasping this concept improves your dog’s awareness, and an improved understanding can help you teach your dog how to switch from an aroused state to thinking and responding logically. Doing so, however, requires a mini-primer on the basic ins and outs of canine communication.

Decoding Canine Body Language

Dogs are savvy communicators and rely heavily upon body language to tell you what they are thinking and feeling. The placement of your dog’s head, ears, eyes, and tail will tell you if it is relaxed, stressed, frightened, curious, eager to play or preparing to bite. Here are a few common cues you are likely to see your dog displaying:

  • If its ears are up, its eyes are bright, and its tail is wagging, this usually means “I’m happy” or “Come on — let’s play.”
  • If its ears are back, its lips are curled, and its tail is down, it usually indicates anger, fear, or stress. The dog is likely saying, “Stay back and leave me alone,” or, “Pull on my tail one more time, and you’ll be sorry.”
  • If your dog is sniffing the ground, it could just be exploring an enticing smell or looking for a place to relieve itself, but dogs also sniff the ground when they are worried or ill at ease, explains Aloff. A dog that’s doing this may be telling another approaching dog, “I see you. Calm down. I’m minding my own business. I don’t want any trouble.”
  • Panting, yawning, or drooling can sometimes indicate stress that, depending on your dog’s temperament, can be triggered by unfamiliar surroundings, isolation, crowds, strange or loud noises, other animals, or your demeanor. 

Mind Your Body Language

Dogs have the uncanny ability to zero in on your body language, too. What you say verbally and what your body language says visually can send conflicting messages to your dog. The slightest shift in your breathing can tell your dog if you are nervous, happy, angry, or worried. How your dog behaves is a direct reflection of what your body language tells it. By projecting a calm demeanor — controlling your breathing, body posture, tone of voice — you can calm your frightened or nervous dog. In the dog’s mind, it is thinking, “My owner is calm. She has everything under control. I do not need to worry.” On the other hand, if you are anxious or apprehensive, your nervous dog will sense this, and it will become even more nervous.

Analyzing Your Dog’s Personality

Figuring out your dog’s personality will help you to improve the human-canine relationship by fostering a better understanding between yourself and your dog. Is your pet pushy, bossy, cheeky, nervous, anxious, bold, confident, dominant, or aggressive? “If I am sweet and overly tolerant with a strong, assertive dog, he will take advantage of me,” explains Aloff. “If I come on too strong with a timid dog, I will frighten him.” Either way, misjudging your dog’s personality can interfere with the learning process.

Be Consistent With Expectations

Dogs can’t understand the rules if the rules keep changing. If your dog is allowed on the couch and then gets yelled at when he jumps on the couch with dirty feet, this is an unrealistic expectation that confuses your dog and derails the human-canine relationship. He doesn’t know that having dirty feet should pose a problem.

With their communication system, dogs learn differently than humans do. Aloff hopes owners can “close the gap between what they intend their dogs to learn and what the dog actually learns.” In doing so, it becomes much easier for you to integrate dog training into your daily routine. In return, your dog will be better-behaved and more likely to be included in your family and friends’ day-to-day activities. Owners are happy. Dogs are happy. Everyone wins because a well-trained dog means the human-canine possibilities are endless.

Dog and Owner Success

Admittedly, results didn’t happen overnight for Craig and her hyped-up Border Collie. 

Success came through gradual steps over time. After several months, Weaver began to trust his new owner. He stopped biting. He began to relax and enjoy himself. There were numerous setbacks, but nearly three years after the manic Border Collie’s rescue, Craig and Weaver are competing and winning in agility competitions at a national level.

“Brenda’s Get Connected protocol changed our lives,” says Craig. “Weaver now enjoys being touched. He is more focused, less reactive, better able to concentrate, and is a much happier dog. Looking back, I am amazed we have come this far. We are definitely more of a team now.”

Article written by Author: Tracy Libby

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