How often do you hear “I have lived with dogs all my life – I know the answer to this” or “I look after dogs every day and know what I’m doing” when the person uttering them is way off the mark with their assessment of a dog or how they feel in any situation.
It’s easy to tell when someone has picked up a little knowledge from a dodgy source or decided that their observations are correct – when they are way off. It’s easier still to tell when someone hasn’t learned the facts on who dogs are, how they communicate, how they feel and most importantly why we need to respect them and their presence in any situation.
Dogs are feeling animals, they feel their way through life. Gravitating towards things that make them feel good and away from those things that don’t. We too are feeling animals, doing the same thing yet we have a lot more brain activity going on. Our monkey minds are chatterers, it would be lovely to know how simple life would be without constant added chatter wouldn’t it – yet in many ways words serve us well because we can use them to reason. Because dogs can’t be told they are safe in words particularly, their feelings are what they rely on. Their learning experiences are what they draw on and their bodies react quickly to potential threats. So if we move quickly and loudly around them, particularly if they are already a bit stressed, we can make them feel unsafe. And if we don’t know or pay attention to dog language – we might not even know that we are doing it.
Whilst we certainly should all be attuned through feelings, as opposed to living through thoughts alone, we still need knowledge when living and working with dogs. Often when we know a dog we can say “oh he doesn’t look very happy – what just happened” or “he didn’t like that” we don’t have to consciously recall the book we last read to know a dog we love feels a certain way.
If we are really into dogs though we really should be drinking in all the information from all the sources that we can. This is even more important if we work with them. Over the last few years, dogs are so well studied that our opportunities to learn from them about who they are, are endless. We have learned everything from how tiny face shapes and changes show us pain to how play and problem solving can help them to be optimistic and resilient. We know that the emotional areas in their brain associated with love and happiness light up when a person they are bonded with appears. We know that a lot of domestic dogs are pushed into uncomfortable situations or subjected to unrealistic expectations and we see over and over again, dogs ignored or treated like commodities.
There is a new and exciting development for dogs though. The forerunners are teaching not how to change behaviour but how to observe and learn from the dog. The teachers are showing us that dogs are unique individuals in their own right and that we should be showing them as much respect as we should show each other. We are learning to trust our dogs, to give them space, to not just assume they are ok in the situation we put them into and instead to look deeper, to always ask the dog with our eyes. But unless we have read the right books, learned the right facts and studied the right studies, we can look but often we can miss what we are looking for.
Our dogs are not going to hold up a billboard saying “I feel worried by this” or “I don’t feel safe” but they will hold their bodies and facial shapes a certain way. They will move differently or their ears will change shape or position. Their pupils might dilate, their paws may sweat, and it’s up to us to know what these things mean and support the dog we are with.