Crash course in canine communication

Every day is a school day, and that’s certainly the case when you own a Wilson.

Mum attended a really interesting course over the summer run by Doggie Business, which gave attendees a crash course in canine communication.

Mum knows Sam, who owns Doggie Business, from Hampshire Search & Rescue Dogs. Sam is a human psychologist by profession and has now turned her knowledge and talents to training dogs. She really knows her stuff and comes highly recommended if you’re looking for canine advice in the south Hampshire area.

Anyway, a waggy tail means a happy dog, right? And you need to tell a dog off if it’s growling, yes?

No.

The course gave everyone the knowledge and skills they need to start learning how to speak dog:

  • emotional signals
  • the four f’s
  • social skills
  • early warning signs.

We’ll give you a few pointers covering some of these areas, but keep an eye on the Doggie Business website and Facebook page for future courses to hear lots more from an expert.

Wilson on a shingle bank

Nothing at all to do with dog communication, this photo

Emotional signals

These are instinctive displays of body language triggered by a dog’s emotion – similar to something like blushing in humans, which you have no control over. They’re important because they help humans predict what a dog is likely to do next.

Look at the dog’s ears, tail, mouth, eyes, head and body posture – all of these, taken in context, will give you a very good idea of what a dog is feeling and how comfortable it is with a situation.

I’ll just cover the tail here as that’s often the limit of most people’s ‘understanding’ of how a dog is feeling.

I put ‘understanding’ in quote marks, as mum has fallen foul here. As readers of this blog may know, I’m not keen on other dogs when I’m on a lead. I was on a lead walk some time ago, and we met another dog coming towards us on the path.

Some sniffing followed and mum noticed that my tail was wagging slowly, so all was good she thought. Then – wham! – me and this other dog were very obviously not going to be BFFs.

She spoke to another trainer she knows – Kerry from Woody’s Paws4Thought – who explained that rather than wagging, my tail was swaying. This is a warning sign that I wasn’t comfortable with the situation.

This was underlined by the Doggie Business course, which pointed out that the speed of a wagging tail gives humans lots of clues.

Mid-speed and mid-height wags are good indicators of friendliness. Slow-speed wags with the tail held low – just as mine was doing – shows uncertainty and a dog feeling under pressure.

Sam says that people need to look at the tail as a whole, as the level at which its held, the speed of the wag (as outlined above) and the tension give clues as to how we’re feeling.

Her tip is not to look at the tip of the tail but the base. A high tail means high adrenaline and on alert; a level tail indicates a relaxed, level mood; and a low tail can mean ambivalence if loose and relaxed but if curved towards the body or clamped at the base it’s fearful.

Wilson, Kai and Rusty

What are our tails saying in this photo, do you think?

The four f’s

And here they are:

  • fight
  • flight
  • freeze
  • fidget/flirt.

Personally I reckon there should be a fifth:

  • floppy (ear).

I’ll focus on just one of the four – fidget/flirt. Sam says this is the least recognised yet probably the most common.

It’s often misunderstood as naughtiness or disobedience but is used when a dog is feeling uncomfortable and wants to deflect. The example Sam gave is when puppies might try to chew the grooming brush whilst laying on their backs and rolling around.

Closely related to this response is using behaviour as a cut-off signal, when dogs try to de-escalate a situation by doing something else such as:

  • sniffing the ground
  • scratching
  • checking the genital area (just as well you humans don’t do this)
  • chewing an item or themselves.
Wilson prancing in some water

I call this post the ‘prancing horse’ – not just for Ferrari!

Anyway, we could go on and on with all the tips that Doggie Business shared but best that you book a place for yourselves so that Sam can share her knowledge with you. And big thanks to her for allowing us to feature her course on this here dog blog.

Oh, and fear not it you don’t live in south Hampshire, because Woody’s Paws4Thought runs a similar event – a crash course in canine psychology – in the north of the county. Mum went to a session in November last year and found it very useful too. Keep an eye on Woody’s Facebook page for dates.

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