Do not shout at your dog – pt. 2

Let’s recap: I was walking my dog off leash and talking on the phone. She walked onto a street. I shouted at her to come back, in response she lied down in the middle of the street. Not good. But why? The answer is of course: body language. Let’s have a look.

The human side: what was I doing?

I was standing tall, probably with my arms outstretched to some degree, leaning forward somewhat, using a loud, unpleasant tone of voice. Dogs can learn the meaning of verbal commands, but they’re hard-wired to respond to body language and it’s hard for them to overcome it.

My words meant: come back. My body and tone of voice meant: stay away. For us it is natural to interact face-to-face but dogs – given a choice – approach each other from an angle1. My body language at that moment was probably universally threatening but we, humans, are less sensitive to it as we primarily rely on speech. Have a look at how I could have improved the situation:

This is what I probably looked like – I was facing her, this shows me from the side so that you can see how I was leaning forward2:

Improvement 1 – hands by my side, not leaning forward anymore:

Improvement 2 – standing sideways:

Improvement 3 – squatting:

The canine side: what was Leus doing?

She stopped when I called her and turned towards me, then she lied down even though I told her to come back. Why would she do that?!

First and foremost, we must throw out of the window the misconception that dogs do things to spite us. Then we can proceed to the actual explanation.

We already established that my body language was threatening – the message “I’m scary” that my body was sending was stronger than the verbal message “come here”. Leus lied down in an attempt to appease me and avoid conflict.

Calming signals

This brings us to the so-called calming signals – a term developed by the Norwegian trainer Turid Rugaas3. She made three important observations that changed the dog training world forever:

  1. Dogs have a rich body language that they actively use to prevent conflicts.
  2. They primarily learn this language from other dogs but humans help them with this process.
  3. Some of the body language can be used by humans too.

Lying down, as Leus did, is one of these calming signals. These are the main signals that Turid Rugaas describes in her book:

  • turning the head away/looking away
  • “softening” the eyes (kind of like squinting or slowly blinking)
  • tongue flicks (the tongue comes out and touches the muzzle or the tip of the nose quickly)
  • longer licks around the muzzle
  • sitting down
  • moving slowly
  • moving in a curve/curving
  • stopping
  • lying down
  • sniffing
  • yawning
  • turning away
  • play bow
  • peeing
  • splitting (dividing other dogs)
  • tail wagging

Some of these behaviours can also signal distress: if you are on a crowded bus or in a vet’s waiting room you might see a lot of dogs that are panting, yawning or licking themselves. Obviously, these are just fragments of the body language – dogs can also yawn when they’re sleepy, pant when they are thirsty or wag their tail when they are happy. It is important to evaluate these signals in the context of the given situation. But please, stop shouting at your dog already.

Do not shout at your dog

…and how I learned the hard way

It’s really hard to resist the urge to punish the dog verbally, especially when they are doing something that is not only wrong but also potentially dangerous. Patricia McConnell suggested in one of her books that it has more to do with letting off steam and appeasing our own anger than with anything even vaguely resembling training. But still, it’s just really hard.

For example: despite her training my dog cheerfully walked into the street. My reaction? I shouted at her. She stopped. I did some more shouting. She lied down.

She lied down in the middle of the zebra.

Why? Firstly, despite all the sounds I was making I did not give her any clear instructions. I think she figured out I was unhappy but that’s not a cue or even a clue. Secondly, I must have looked pretty scary to her, no wonder she decided not to approach me.

Luckily we lived in a very quiet neighbourhood with few cars so I had the seconds necessary to put my thinking cap back on, change my body language and tone and make her come to me. I hope I rewarded her plenty for coming back. The whole scene lasted probably less than half a minute but it felt like ages to me…

I’m sure that everyone who has a dog (or a child for that matter) has been in a similar situation. Frustration management is a problem for all of us, humans and dogs alike. Situations like this clearly show that shouting does not solve any problems. The biggest lesson I took from this experience is, well, not shouting at her. But there are other lessons.

First of all, did this have to happen? No. This situation was 100% my fault. She should not have been off the leash in that situation at all because a) I was talking on the phone, and b) we have only started practicing staying on the pavement.

Roads and pavements are just one of these things, just like walking shoulder to shoulder or facing each other during greetings, that are so very natural to us that we tend to make the assumption that dogs should also know what they mean. But my dog has most probably spent her whole life scavenging the countryside, how should she know? The key to being a successful companion is managing their environment and setting them up for success.
In our case that means that I do not talk on the phone when she’s off the leash and – after months of practice – I still let her walk the streets freely only when I can totally focus on her. And I try my best to not lash out because if she ‘misbehaves’ it is because I haven’t taught her a better behaviour.