What hands mean to dogs

Published: Apr 07 2015 : Mirror (Bangalore)

Dogs are intensely aware of our hands. We did a study in Norway, where we measured the impact our hands have on a dog’s heart rate. The finding was remarkable. It showed very clearly that our hands played a significant role on a dog’s heart rate, indicating their acute sensitivity to our hands.

Due to their close attention on our hands, they can be used effectively to communicate subtle messages to dogs like asking a dog to stop doing something or letting a dog know that everything is okay. An astute observer of dog body language, equipped with the knowledge of `calming signals’ will find it very handy to just show the palm to a dog in a reassuring way whenever the dog gets a bit anxious. Google Calming Signals to learn more about understanding dog communication.
While the dog’s sensitivity to our hands, make them effective communication tools, laying a hand on a dog also elevates a dog’s heart rate. When a dog is emotionally aroused due to anxiety or excitement, laying a hand on a dog can have some undesirable consequences. Since our hands on dogs increase their heart rate, an already excited dog can suddenly startle or get further agitated. We often tend to think that when dogs are anxious we need to pet them to calm them. On the contrary, we need to keep our hands off, so that we do not further elevate their heart rate.
If the dog sought contact, we can give a little contact.Vocally soothing a dog down with long drawn out soft slow words helps a little. The most effective way to calm a dog down is to get a dog to sniff. I learned recently that the respiratory system is the easiest one to take control of when a person or animal is charged up. People are often taught breathing exercises as a way to take control and tide past panic. Similarly, getting a dog to sniff has calming effects.Dogs can be made to sniff by simple things like treat search.Scatter pieces of your dog’s absolute favourite treat in the lawn, on mosaic floor or hide treats around the house. Allow your dog to sniff out the treats. By the end of the session his heart rate reduces and he is much more receptive to reason.Until then, hands off the dog please! This does not mean one does not pet a dog. Pet a dog when the dog comes and seeks petting and is relaxed. A few scratches behind the ear, under the chin, on the shoulder or on the belly are endearing interactions that dogs adore. They don’t particularly appreciate being touch on the head or on the neck. They tolerate it. But they have their favourites and it’s always fun to pet a dog in a polite way. Keep petting sessions calm, happy and short.

Hands can be actively used for calming too. Long soft strokes on the dog can release Oxytocin in the dog, creating a sense of wellbeing. However, our hands do increase a dog’s heart rate, so how do we calm the dog down? The first trick is to time it right. Soft massages like these should be administered to a dog when the dog is awake, but calm and relaxed.Then softly put your hand on the dog and let it lay there till the dogs breathing is slow. Then start the long, soft and slow strokes on the dog. Keep that up for a few minutes and then take hands off again. Your hands are special to your dog. Use them sensibly and sensitively. 

The writer is a Canine Family Coach & Behaviourist and the founder of a canine therapy and training centre 


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