Carolyn Menteith is a behaviourist at tails.com with over 25 years of experience working with and training dogs.
Life can be tough for our dogs. We expect so much from them – in fact being a family dog is the hardest job we ever ask a dog to do.
While working dogs usually live with experienced owners, in a purpose-designed environment, and get a daily outlet for all the things they have been bred, sometimes over hundreds of years, to do, a companion dog has a much tougher brief.
They are expected to live in a home as part of a family, not make a mess, not chew things they are not supposed to, love everyone (including the cat!), enjoy being handled and even cuddled, not steal food, put up with noise, chaos and the busy environments we live in, be happy to go everywhere with us when we want them to – and equally happy to be left alone when we don’t want their company, not jump up, bark, bite… in fact not do all the things that make them … a dog!
That so many dogs manage this is a testament to just how amazing our canine companions are – and just how adaptable – but not all manage it so seamlessly and that is where we start to see behaviour problems.
Behaviour problems in dogs
Now let’s do a quick debunk here. Behaviour problems are not problems for the dog – even though what is causing the behaviour is. They are just a dog behaving like a dog in a situation they find stressful, in order to try and make themselves feel better, or to make the stressful thing stop or go away. This is a behaviour problem for their owner or family – not the dog…
Some behaviour problems are obvious – because they are dramatic. Biting, destruction, howling, reactivity… everyone recognises those but they are the canine equivalent of shouting at the top of your voice. A last attempt to be heard when all else has failed.
If we want to prevent behaviour problems in our dogs – and just make sure they stay healthy, happy and fulfilled in their lives with us – we need to hear what they are saying before they have no choice but to shout. This means that we have to become experts at identifying stress in our dogs – and dealing with that before it escalates into a more serious issue. Thankfully, with a little bit of knowledge of “Dog as a Foreign Language”, that becomes easy to do.
Dog body language – the great communicator
Dogs do not communicate verbally like we do but they do use a whole range of body language cues that, when we know what we are looking for, start to become obvious. Watching and reading your dog’s body language quickly starts to become addictive – and you start to develop a symbiotic relationship where you both listening to each other.
There are plenty of body language cues that indicate our dogs are feeling stressed. Some are very subtle – and are just early warning signs that the dog is finding a situation potentially worrying. Others are more obvious – but with skill and practice, you will understand your dog long before they have to ‘raise their voice’.
- Yawning – of course dogs yawn when they are tired or if they have just woken up but it can also be a sign of stress. Watch dogs when they are being hugged or handled by someone they don’t know – and see how many times they yawn.
- Lip licking – your dog might just have had a tasty treat or their dinner but if they are licking their lips and there is no food about, this can be an indicator of stress.
- Shake-off – dogs will shake when they are wet to dry off but watch to see if your dog does this after a meeting another dog when you are out on your walk. This could be an indication that the meeting was a little difficult for your dog or made them feel anxious or stressed in some way that they needed to ‘shake off’.
- Whale-eye – dogs are like children in that they seem to think that if they don’t look at something it will seem less scary. If a dog has the choice, they will probably move away from the thing that is causing stress – or turn their head away. If they don’t have the choice, they will move their eyes away from it and you will see the white at the side of their eyes.
- Turning away, walking away – dogs follow the motto “there is no problem big enough that you can’t run away from it” and so given the choice they will move away from the things that are causing them stress.
- Lethargy – sometimes we don’t recognise stress because it looks a lot like good behaviour. A dog who is happy and is getting all their physical, mental and emotional needs met, is likely to relax and chill out the rest of the time but a dog who lacks stimulation, exercise, social contact and a way to succeed (especially if trained or managed using harsh or forceful methods) can become lethargic and depressed.
Dealing with canine stress seems really easy – although of course in reality, it can be much harder.
- Recognise the body language cues your dog is giving you.
- Work out what is causing the stress.
- Remove the stressors or make them manageable before things develop into a bigger problem – and your dog has to shout.
- Make sure you dog gets all the things they need to be healthy and happy – this includes exercise, an outlet for the things they were bred to do, social contact, changes to succeed and get rewarded for that, and play. This is the best way to reduce canine stress.
If you need help, talk to an experienced, accredited behaviourist who will be able to interpret what your dog is saying and work with you to de-stress your dog.