Learn dog language

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 23, 2016, 08.30 PM IST

What is your dog telling you?

A friend recently shared a video that has been making the rounds on the internet. She was not able to comprehend what was going on. The video showed a dog sitting in front of a big cake, curling his lips back in a snarl. People around were touching his teeth with icing dipped fingers, which would make the dog stop snarling and lick the icing off the finger and then start snarling again. The people found this very funny and kept giggling about it.

A closer look at this video reveals that the dog is not only snarling, but is giving several other signals. This body is stiff, his hackles are raised, he has whale eyes (where the whites of the eyes are revealed excessively) and there is also a low rumble of a growl. These are all signs. The dog is trying to say something and the overtone of that something is “Please give me space, I am feeling pushed”. It’s meant to act as a warning. A dog is on the brink of his “fight or flight” response being triggered. And when it does, if he does not see an immediate way out, he will be forced to fight!

Often we might think a dog has a way out. But clearly the dog does not always see that way out. This might have a bit to do with the way humans and dogs perceive space, depth and colour. A dark room that could trap him further might not seem like a good option for “flight” to a dog. The other explanation could come from the fact that we underestimate how stressed a dog is when he is showing us these signs. When an animal is indeed this stressed, his brain is in a panic mode and he might not be able to see clearly all the options he has in front of him.

In any case, it’s best to back off from the dog. If you are concerned about how frequently your dog is behaving like this, seek help from a professional to understand why your dog is getting stressed so easily. But at the time your dog is snarling or growling, back off and give him maximum space to compose himself again. Growling by itself is not a problem. Growling is a symptom of a problem – elevated levels of underlying stress coming either from poor health, environmental stressors or unresolved baggage from the dogs past. Of course, there are other reasons too and hence needs close examination of the dog, his habits and his lifestyle.

So that explains the dog’s behaviour on the video. How do we understand the people’s behaviour? When an animal is warning them so clearly, why are they seemingly blind to the dog’s signs. In my experience, the most common reason is lack of awareness. I do believe that if we as pet parents took responsibility to learn about calming signals and dog body language, we will not only avoid our dogs a lot of stress, avoid miscommunication with them and avoid dangerous accidents. But the best part of it all is that once we start learning their language and start responding to them more appropriately, our relationship with them elevates to a new level all together. There are several videos, books and articles online about Calming Signals and dog body language. It’s not that hard to learn about this. But it’s not only safer once you know this, it’s also so much more rewarding.

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Is your dog embarrassing you?

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 16, 2016, 08.34 PM IST

Look out for dogs getting too excited

A client once described his problem as “My dog is acting dirty.” It took me a while to figure that one out. But then I realised that we have all seen this so-called “acting dirty”. Some call it ‘humping’. Some call it ‘mounting’. But however people describe it, it’s a problem causing anything from mild embarrassment to real physical damage. So it’s time to talk about it.

Some people believe that this is a sexual act and that it will go away when the dog is neutered or spayed. But we know that is not the whole explanation. We have all seen dogs mounting other dogs of the same gender, trying to mount people, inanimate objects etc. Even if we were to assume that dogs’ sexual lives are indeed so colourful, it does not explain neutered dogs mounting and female dogs mounting. There has to be something else at play here.

Some training beliefs suggest that it’s a sign that the dog is exhibiting dominance. But the entire notion that dogs spend their lives trying to gain dominance over humans has long since been debunked. Wolves or dogs, in their natural environment, do not even form such strict hierarchies. Instead, they are caring, loving, family units, in which the breeding pair pampers the little ones. In addition to the theory being debunked there is absolutely no evidence to show that dogs use mounting as a symbolic gesture to gain social status. That is just a bad extrapolation of a debunked theory, done by unqualified trainers, in their attempt to explain a behaviour they don’t understand.

So if it’s more than just a sexual behaviour and it’s not dominance, then what is it? The jury seems to be out on it. There are a few theories floating about, but none that are conclusive yet. You see, dog behaviour is a wide area for research and has been picking up popularity only in the last decade.

However, there is one thing that is easy to observe. This behaviour seems to coincide with increased stress hormones in the body. Stress hormones increase when the dog is excited, anxious or angry. When stress hormones increase, dogs start showing a host of behaviours. Some might opt to run madly in wild circles, some jump excessively, some dig furiously, some mouth people around and some dogs mount. The cause of such excitement, anxiety or anger could be a host of things, ranging from actual sexual arousal to something as simple as you returning home after a long day.

One of my clients was rather perturbed by this problem and just could not nail the cause. She insisted that her dog mounted unprovoked. And he grabbed her leg when he did it, giving her massive bruises. My heart went out to her. I asked her to maintain a diary for a week, making an entry of everything that happens just before her dog exhibits this behaviour. The diary quickly revealed that there was always something exciting that preceded this behaviour and that little things excited him. We then realised that he was an easily excitable dog and if we fixed that problem, the mounting would just go away. In the meanwhile, to avoid those nasty bruises, my client figured out ways to avoid the exciting triggers as much as possible.

So you see, if your dog is mounting a lot there is a message there for you: the problem in itself. It’s a symptom of a problem. It says that your dog’s base stress levels are high and need to be addressed. While we may not have an exact explanation of this behaviour, we know enough to recognise it as a symptom of high stress or excitement, so we can look for the root cause.

Don’t hog the hug

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 9, 2016, 08.40 PM IST

Dogs don’t like being hugged

If you’ve been following any doggy news online, you must have come across the ongoing discussion about hugging dogs. For those of you who haven’t, here’s a gist.

Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher who has published award winning books regarding the intelligence and mental abilities of dogs recently wrote an article for Psychology Today. The article details a study he did on photographs of people hugging dogs. His study revealed that more than 80 per cent of these dogs were giving out ‘calming signals‘.

Calming signals are signals that dogs give out when they are trying to calm themselves or others down, often indicating that there is a stressor around. Easily identifiable calming signals include licking of the lips, yawning, turning the face away, squinting and whale eyes (whites of the eye showing prominently).

After Coren published his article, several people raised questions. These are valid questions in the academic field of research. It was pointed out that the study was not sufficient to be conclusive. It was also pointed out that findings like these need to be corroborated by multiple sources.

There is another study going on in Norway called ‘Dog Pulse‘ that studies the heart of dogs in different situations. That study reveals some very interesting facts that might offer some additional information to understand this issue at hand. The study shows that a dog’s heart rate increases significantly when we hover over a dog or bend over a dog. Now that might make intuitive sense to us. If there was a species much larger than us that hovered over us, it’s easy to imagine that our heart rate would also spike.

The Pulse Project also reveals that walking straight up to a dog spikes up the dog’s heart rate. Now that is a less intuitive fact. To understand this, we need to know how dogs approach each other. They never walk up to each other unless it’s confrontational. In a non-confrontational approach a dog curves slightly around another dog. So it makes sense that dogs are perhaps not designed for calm full-frontal approaches.

In addition to this, we also have studies that show that chances of bites are much higher when a dog is being hugged or kissed. There are also several videos online that show a dog’s body language in slow motion as it’s being hugged or petted. The videos reveal dogs giving out several calming signals, just the way Coren’s photo study revealed.

All of this information is repeatedly pointing in the same direction—dogs don’t always love hugs. That does not mean they don’t like touch. Sometimes dogs will come up to you and ask for contact. But such a dog will happily accept a nice massage on the neck or like to be stroked on the shoulders. Of course many dogs do love sitting on people’s laps. They will enjoy that far more if they can continue to sit, without having to be restricted by your hug. Puppies will ask to be picked up sometimes. Again, there are several guides on the internet about how you can pick one up, without making the puppy feel restricted and while also giving the puppy maximum sense of freedom and not trapping them in a hug.

Yes, we need a lot more validation of this idea. But some articles that object to this idea make an incorrect leap from asking for more validation to then dismissing the result of the study as incorrect. With dogs, is it not always better to be safe than sorry? Does it not make sense that the study suggests an animal needs it space? Should we not learn to respect that space and not impose? Learn to read Calming Signals to let your dog guide you on what he likes and does not like. I like this video that shows how to read these signs when petting a dog:

Of summer, mangoes and dogs

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 2, 2016, 09.10 PM IST

Everyone deserves to enjoy mangoes

I often drive by Palace Grounds. Yesterday I noticed a massive mango market that seemingly has come up over night. The number of varieties of mangoes was just mind blowing. And the excitement of people was palpable. Yes, we need to endure this heat. But at least the mangoes are here. My malgoa dreams have started.

This reminds me of a story that happened six years ago. It was around this time that we brought home a little puppy called Nishi. We wanted to shower her with all the love and luxury we could afford her. How then could we deprive her mangoes?

Having got our inspiration from Marley and me, we took Nishi to the garden and gave her, her first mango. She seemed to love it. We loved watching her enjoy it. Oh we were all so in love and so young and naive. While the puppy stuffed her face with mango, the two of us sat on the bench, saying silly nothings to each other. Paints a pretty picture right? Yes, pretty silly!

We snapped out of our dream in a bit and looked around. The puppy was looking at us with a happy mango covered face. And that’s it! There was nothing else around. No sign of the mango. No peel.

No seed. Everything was inside that mango faced puppy!

We panicked and called the vet. He said that our options were limited. Either she had to throw up the seed or we had to operate it out of her, as there was no way she was going to be able to pass it out. We had to bring her in as soon as she showed signs of any distress. We watched her like a hawk the next few days. Poop alert had gone to red. No vomit, no seed in poop, no distressed puppy. To this day the mystery of the missing mango seed remains unsolved.

We learnt a few lessons then. Firstly, watch puppies carefully. They do stupid things, just like us. Second, was to relax. Yes, puppies to stupid things, but they are also incredibly resilient. I know they sound contradictory. So the last lesson we learnt is that pet parenting is about walking the fine like between being protective and trusting an animal and it’s an everyday learning process. Pet parenting is an art.

Okay! On that note, how about a little mango recipe for summer? Mango is not great in big quantities for dogs. But I believe everyone deserves a little mango this time of the year. So if your dog shows interest in the fruit, try this ice cream for your dog.

Toss in a tub of full fat curds in a blender. Toss in a banana, half a mango, some honey and unsweetened peanut butter with the curds. Blend it all together and freeze it in little cups. When it’s mango-time at home, pull out a cup of the mango dessert, leave it out just for a few minutes so that it’s not freezing.

I heard Nigella Lawson say that the best place to eat a mango was in the tub, naked. I like her style. Of course, your dog won’t mind the naked part. But might actually mind the bath tub. So try the terrace, garden or parking lot.

It’s going to get messy. Might as well grab a mango yourself and join the mess. We all know that mango mess is bliss! Enjoy the season and pray for the monsoons to start soon. Meanwhile keep your dogs hydrated and cool and go easy on the walks.

What to look for when adopting?

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Apr 25, 2016, 08.58 PM IST

Is adoption right for you?

Is adoption right for you? That’s a question only you can really answer. Often people are not sure how to answer that question and eventually opt out of adoption. I’ll try to give you some tools that you can use to help you figure out. If you don’t feel confident enough about evaluating a dog, use the help of a professional to get the answers.

The most common myth people have about adopting dogs is that all such dogs carry baggage and hence is going to pose a significant challenge in settling down at home. A closer examination of this myth reveals something interesting. Yes, most dogs up for adoption are stressed to varying degrees. But the problem is not insurmountable. At the same time, raising young puppies is no cake-welk, either. They too need a lot of care and attention in the beginning. Little puppies also need a lot of patience when it comes to training them and handling their destructive phase and teenage months. So you see, petting a dog is going to be a lot of effort, one way or another.

The range of issues with adopted dogs can be quite vast, and pet parents must know what issues they are going to face, and must also understand how to face it.

First up, health issues. In order to evaluate the health of the dog, examine the dog thoroughly and talk to the shelter staff at length. Observe the coat, gait and teeth.

Observe the dog during play time and meal time. Look for large clumps of falling fur, limping of any nature, yellow teeth, reluctance to play, stiffness when trying to eat or drink water. Of course, you cannot expect a dog to be at his healthiest self in a shelter. Talk to the shelter staff and ask questions about the dog’s health history, number of infections and allergies the dog has been administered, the bowel movement of the dog, poop consistency, appetite, stomach upsets, injuries etc.

The next thing one needs to assess is the behaviour of the dog. A dog with a bite history might not be the best fit for a home, especially for first-time pet parents or for families with a new born baby. A shy dog might struggle in a very busy home. A hyper dog might be pushed over to the edge if the people in the house are too excited.

When you observe the dog, see the level of curiosity it exhibits. A curious dog is a healthy dog. Observe how he approaches people. A confident dog should be able to walk up to strangers with relative ease. If possible, take him out for a walk and observe how he deals with novelty outside the shelter. You are looking for signs of healthy curiosity, with a little bit of caution thrown in.

Ask extensive questions about the bite history of the dog. Find out how many times the dog has bitten people, or other dogs, since his arrival at the shelter, or previously, if possible. Find out as much as possible about the situation that led to the bite. Try to understand if it’s impulsive or was there a reason why the dog responded violently. Remember that shelter dogs are put under a lot of duress and they can snap sometimes. It does not make them bad-behaved dogs. So understand the situation well before evaluating the dog.

And last but not the least, evaluate your own ability to commit and your experience. If experience and commitment are high, then you are in a wonderful place where you might be able to take home the most needy of dogs and give them all that they need to flourish. I wish you well. However, if you are low on either, then you might want to objectively evaluate what you can do and take on only as much as you can. That way you do right by the dog and have an experience you will actually cherish.

Disclaimer: I advocate adoption when possible, discourage pet shop buying of dogs and am against backyard breeding.

Socializing children and dogs

Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Apr 18, 2016, 10.03 PM IST

Socializing children and dogs can be useful

When Nishi, my boxer, was a little puppy, a few friends came over to see her. A couple brought their daughter along. The couple themselves were not very comfortable with dogs. So I once asked why they wanted to meet Nishi. The mother told me something wonderful. She said that she was afraid of dogs and wanted to give her daughter the opportunity to get over her fear of dogs. She did not want her daughter to carry the fear. I thought that was smart then. Now, I think it’s genius!

Children who are afraid of dogs are often very stiff around dogs. Their body language is rather awkward and sometimes intimidating to dogs. Their shrill screams and sudden movements can scare dogs easily. This is an unsafe scenario for both child and dog. However one cannot really be asked to change their panic reaction. I read a wonderful quote that said “In the history of this world, whoever calmed down because they were told to calm down?”. As adults we can perhaps control our panic reactions a bit more. But children can’t. The solution lies in not triggering the panic reaction at all. Get the child used to a dog in a non-threatening, structured way and they will automatically be more controlled in how they are around animals. It’s a safer alternative.

At first, it’s important to pick the right dog. The dog needs to be a calm adult. Puppies and juveniles are hyperactive and socially awkward. They can get agitated easily and can startle children.

Once you have a dog like that, it’s a good idea to meet in a wide space – a park or parking lot. Walk the child and the dog far away from each other. Let them both look at each other from a distance that they both consider safe enough. It’s important not to stand and stare but to be able to casually walk about. If the dog is not calm enough, create more distance.

Gradually allow them to close the distance at their own pace. If the dog is not ready, the child should not push too hard. Adult supervision is required to ensure that the pace is not getting the dog hyper. Once the distance is close enough and assuming both the child and dog are calm too, the child needs to be instructed not to touch the dog. Allow the dog to come and inspect the child. If this exercise is getting to the child or the dog too agitated, just increase the distance again and wait for the time when they can do this exercise calmly.

Once the dog approaches the child and the child too is comfortable with the dog, the child can be taught to pet the dog. Petting has to happen only on the shoulders or behind the ears. Never on the head. Pet for a few seconds and take the hands off. Once the child and dog get familiar they can be more petting involved.

And last but not the least, a child should never hug a dog. This is one of the most critical lessons we can teach children, to keep them safe. Dogs don’t like to be hugged. They tolerate it most times. But it’s never worth the risk, especially with children whose faces are so close to a dog’s face.

This controlled exposure is good because it not only gives nervous kids time and space to calm down but also gives over-eager kids a lesson in allowing the dog to take his time. Neither of them should feel rushed or pushed.

Snipping puppy dog tails?

Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Apr 12, 2016, 02.49 PM IST

Today I’d like to share my thoughts on tail docking, earcropping and removal of the dew claw. Such practices have been around for a long time, and each time, different reasons are cited for them. At one point, dog shows mandated such amputative procedures, making them “trends”. Now new information is emerging that suggests that we need to rethink the ease with which we opt for these procedures. Kennel clubs are gradually changing their stance on this, and governments are banning such procedures as well. It’s time for more pet parents to have informed opinions on the matter.

The dew claw is the little claw on the side of the foot, mostly in front paws, sometimes in the rear paws as well. You could consider it a bit like your thumb. Though not really an opposable thumb, it still plays a critical role in the anatomy and movement of a dog.

A bit about the anatomy of a dog: There are five tendons that attach to the dew claw. Tendons are attached to muscles. Removal of the dew claw will cause those muscles to atrophy. This is not good for the movement of a dog.

The innermost and outermost claws play critical roles in controlling the pronation of a dog’s foot. If the innermost claw is removed, the dog’s foot will roll inward when walking. The runners among us know that pronation can cause severe injuries in the knees and the rest of the leg. Leg injuries are particularly painful because there is just no escaping movement. This affects behaviour.

Then there’s the tail. Part of the spine, it is used extensively in movement, communication and expression. When a dog runs he uses his tail like a rudder, to set direction. The tail also seems to have a role in breaking when running and banking.

Anyone who has seen a dog will agree that the tail is also used extensively for expression. In fact, to most of us, the tail is the most expressive part of a dog. Latest studies seem to point to observations that might indicate that they are used in communication as well.

One might suggest that these organs get hurt if not removed. True. But that’s true of most organs. The only difference is that we perceive these organs as being unnecessary. But here’s the thing. Our appendix is unnecessary. And it does get infected too. But we don’t remove it pre-emptively. And these organs in a dog are not vestigial like an appendix. They play an active role in a dog’s everyday life. Why not address the injury when it happens instead of preemptively removing it?

Consider our street dogs. They have most of these organs intact. It’s easy to observe that not all of these dogs go around with dew claw injuries and tail injuries. In fact many of the street dog mixes have dew claws on their front and rear leg. And yet, the injuries sustained in these parts are not significantly more than injuries sustained in other parts of the body.

Nature is rarely wrong. Dogs were given these organs for a reason. While we might have erroneously assumed that they did not play a significant role in a dog’s life, we now know otherwise. So it’s perhaps time to reconsider if we really need to go around pre-emptively amputating our animals or give them the benefit of what nature designed for them.