Keys to Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior
In our last post we discussed Is Your Dog Aggressive or Afraid?, the myth that certain behaviors in your dog are thought to mean the dog is being aggressive, when in fact, their behavior stems from fear.
Dogs look at life very simplistic, things are either safe, or they’re dangerous.
I don’t think fear in and of itself is a bad thing. It’s healthy to be afraid of things that can harm you or kill you…survival is important. It’s reasonable to try to continue doing things to determine whether it’s something to be afraid of or whether you don’t need to be, it’s an important part of growing up, learning about life and its surroundings and socialization. Take fire for instance, it has many benefits, but it can certainly burn you!
How does a dog’s fear begin?
Oftentimes their fears begin by being startled:
How close your dog is to something is directly related to his/her reaction, how he feels about it and and the impression it leaves. For example, a Jack-in-the-box toy; the box is closed with a toy inside, you wind it up, music plays, it pops open surprising you, and you jump…normal reaction. Even if you know it’s going to happen, the idea is to make you jump, to startle you. There are lots of things that happen to startle dogs, you drop a box, you pick something up and it moves, something shifts when they walk by and it moves or falls. Perhaps a puppy has been startled when he caused something to topple over. I had an avalanche of papers come off my desk the other morning, my dog, Dancer, flew backwards across the room! I know that’s one thing that he is skittish about.
So back to the Jack-in-the-box scenario, imagine that the Jack-in-the-Box is 30 feet away from you, you can hear it, you can see it, the puppy can see it. As you’re feeding the dog treats and playing, it pops open, you then shower more treats on the dog the toy stops playing…all done. Wow, that wasn’t such a bad experience. Now try that same experience 10 feet away, it is going to be very different, the noise will be louder and everything that’s happening is bigger… You keep decreasing the distance, continue with the treats and play, pretty soon, the Jack isn’t a scary thing, it’s awesome. So, rather than hiding from the “threat”, eventually the dog won’t even care about it, he has overcome his fear.
Watch your dog, and notice how he reacts to different events, this will give you a clue to the types of things that can be startling and cause your dog to become fearful. Now you have the ability to help your dog learn to be comfortable when these types of things happen.
How to act around a dog who is in a state of fear.
- Turn away from them and don’t engage them
- Do not look in their eyes
- Do not approach them
- Do not lean over them
- And definitely do not or reach out over them, or try to pet them
If anything, what you can do is keep a distance between you and the dog, stand 5 to 10 feet away, turn your back, possibly kneel, or just stand quietly. Something you can do is take little tiny bits of cheese, or something else the owner APPROVES of treat wise, and toss the treats towards the puppy and walk away. That’s a great way you can help that puppy.
Never force a greeting or interaction. I spoke with someone the other day whose husband was holding their dog in his arms and they were forcing the dog to be greeted by some neighbors. The dog was so afraid that the husband ended up getting bitten.That’s very very sad. The dog COULDN’T escape, and the people wouldn’t stop coming so he did what he FELT that he had to do to defend himself. Now the dog has learned that biting is effective, and the people think the dog is aggressive.
Dogs, like humans have, and use body language, learn to read your dog’s body language to understand what he’s feeling. Here’s a great article by the ASPCA that can help you recognize what your dog’s body is telling you.
Some easy to recognize signs of fear are generally: making themselves small, becoming less of a target or threat, and sending signals like looking away, lip licking, yawning, ears back.
Yes, unfortunately most of these things are misinterpreted as aggression, poor training or trying to be in charge. Sad. Dogs rarely want to be in charge, how can they pay the bills, run a computer or drive the car and pick up the kids after school? They can’t… Besides it’s a lot of work and no fun!
At Pawsitive Steps Dog Training, I care about the welfare of your dog, about helping him interact in his world, and about his training. My training techniques are based around one simple question: What do you want and expect from your dog?
I believe that the most effective method of dog training revolves around teaching your dog what you want them to do, how to behave, how to act in their environment, and what appropriate behaviors are under given circumstances and situations. Check out our Family Friendly Training Classes, Featuring my “Scaredy Dog” class on January 28th at the Missy’s Rescue and Animal Talk location.