Speak dog

Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jul 11, 2016, 09.00 PM IST


Last year I saw a video making the rounds. It showed a busy intersection in some Indian city, a dog and a policeman patiently waiting till the policeman decides it’s the right time to stop the traffic and let the dog cross. First off hat’s off to this policeman. His heart is made of gold.

Secondly, one can’t help but notice that the dog is actually waiting for the policeman’s cue on when to cross the road. How did this happen?

When I walk around on the streets, and come across a street dog, I often look to check if he or she is friendly and might be interested in some petting. Many times, a dog that seems to be trotting off somewhere on a mission, will stop dead on his tracks and turn back and look at me. Not a single word is exchanged. But the dog knows what my intentions are. I am sure many of you who stops to pet street dogs have experienced this. Before you’ve uttered a word, the dog knows what you plan to do.

Then I’ll notice the dog consider it for a second or two before either heading back on his mission or spending a few seconds with me. The beauty of dogs of course is that, most dogs will make those few extra seconds for me. Some won’t and that’s the free will that people keep referring to in dogs that they find hard to give up, if they go from being a street dog to an house-dog.

I bet if we were to film all street dog interactions with people and other dogs some fantastic observations and explanations will emerge. In the case of the policeman, an astute client of mine observed that he is in fact signalling to the dog to stay put, while he waits for the right moment. I spend a lot of time teaching many such signals to my client. So how did this policeman and dog know this signal already?

I tell all my clients this. I don’t know how or why these signals work. But they do. Dogs get it. And if we learn to get their signals, we have a full language that just seems to exist. Perhaps man and dog co-developed these signals to be able to work with each other. After all, wolves use these signals to work together as a pack. I don’t know and we need more studies on these signals. But I know they work. And the policeman in the video is my proof.

I have seen many people, who have not learnt the signals, use them on dogs. That tells me that we inherently know this language. It’s in our bones. People who interact with street dogs often tend to start picking up a few signals, if they are good in observing dog language. I have seen so many people in villages signal with ease. They just don’t seem to need dominance or clickers to get their dog to do very complicated things like figuring out when and how to follow the farmer (follow to field, not to the market), when to bark at strangers, where the boundaries exist, not to jump on people, not to “play bite” etc…

The earliest depictions of man and dog show them working together, not a main training a dog to sit. Man and dog can become a very successful inter-species partnership if we focus on communication, instead of training. Early man showed us it can be done. Start learning a new language today – dog language (formally documented as calming signals for reference).


Click them right

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 30, 2016, 09.34 PM IST

Organic formations in candids make for stress free photography for dogs

Today I write to the photographers out there who have taken a shine to pet photography. Photographers play a critical role in increasing awareness about dog related issues. As we all know a good picture can say many things. However badly taken pictures can do more damage than one ever intends to. So it’s important for photographers to know what it is they are saying with their pictures.

What is your dog telling you? There was a recent study done by Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher who examined photographs of people with their pets. He noted that in more than 80% of the photographs, dogs were giving out “Calming Signals“. Calming signals are signals that dogs give either to calm themselves down or to calm others around them down. It is usually an indicator of a stressor or a potential stressor around them. Typical calming signals that are frequently caught on camera include licking lips, slow blinking, turning of the head, yawning and whale eyes (where the whites of the eye are prominently showing). Why were so many dogs giving out these signals in the photos? What was the stressor in them?

What NOT to frame: A dog being hugged against it’s wishes. Notice the dog giving a calming signal by turning away.

The study of course focused on people hugging their dog. The theory is that dogs don’t like hugs and hence were caught giving out calming signals in these photos. However there are others who question if the dogs were giving the signals to the photographer, indicating stress at being photographed. In other case, we know the dogs are uncomfortable.

Experienced behaviourists will tell you that dogs are typically stressed by someone hugging them, someone staring them down, someone making hard eye contact or someone hovering over them. Unfortunately photography often includes all of these. We pick up what looks like a massive big eye and point it right in the dogs faces. If there are humans in the frame, they are often hugging the dog. The photographer often leans down to get a better picture of the dog, stressing the dog further. All of these combined is creating a high stress situation for the dog and that is showing in such studies.

I urge photographers to consider more polite practices when photographing dogs. Educate the subjects of your composition not to hug or sandwich the dog, but to lure the dog into the composition and keep him engaged there with treats or funny sounds. Opt for more natural poses where the dog and humans are not squished together, but are in a more organic formation that does not restrict the dog. Candids might be a much better option in this case. Try not to point the camera straight at the dog and instead opt for more profile pictures that is far more comfortable for a dog. And watch your own body language. Try not to lean towards a dog or make intense eye contact.

The most important tip of all is to look up Calming signals on the internet and learn to identify it in your photographs. Once you are sensitized to reading a dogs calming signals it is easy to work out your body language so that the dog does not see the need to signal to you.

I recently saw the above lovely picture shot by a friend. In the frame is a child and two dogs. The three of them are sitting comfortably on a blanket in a park. All three in the image are facing slightly away from each other, but are still engaged. It’s just lovely to see such a healthy respect for space that the child and dogs were having for each other. Lovely pictures like this play a crucial role in educating people on understanding the personal space of a dog. So I am hopeful that you will be producing some wonderful images that communicate the right message.

Here are some more pictures the wonderful people at Bombat Dawgz contributed towards my good photography project. Enjoy 🙂

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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.

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:

Learn the rules of the dog world

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Feb 8, 2016, 08.07 PM IST

Pet Puja: Learn the rules of the dog world
NEVER stare a dog directly in the eye. It’s intimidating and confrontational.

I recently had to deal with Mango, a dog who had a history of unprovoked aggression towards women in particular. Mango is a massive dog with a known bite history.While I have dealt with dogs of this nature in the past, this is the first time the dog was close to two-thirds of my body weight. That changed things for me.I had to know exactly what I was doing and not allow for a single mistake.

Mango came to visit me. We spent over an hour together and he finally left with no unpleasantness between us, whatsoever. How was something like this possible, when Mango’s humans were convinced that he would bite me?

In order to understand our own behaviour towards dogs, it helps me to compare and contrast. Last week when I was walking Buster, I saw a few children rile him. The children were not doing it on purpose. But their body language was completely off and that upset Buster immensely. So when my session with Mango ended I sat down to ponder what the differences were between my body language and those of the children that upset Buster so much.

At the top of the list was the speed at which I was moving. I was neither too slow nor was I rushing. I walked at a relaxed pace. The children on the other hand were stomping and running past Buster. Their arms were flailing all over the place. I had my arms close to me, and was making very small gestures. Dogs are hyper-sensitive to our movement and it stands to reason that unusual or excessive movement from us will draw their attention and get them worked up.

Next thing I noted was eye contact. At no point did I make eye contact with Mango. I looked roughly in his direction because I needed to evaluate him. I kept my eyes and face soft, with a gentle smile on my face. The children on the other hand were staring down Buster, presumably because of their own anxiety. Hard stares are very confrontational in the dog world and dogs will react to those either by slinking away or by getting reactive. While it may be difficult for people nervous about dogs to look away from a dog, it’s one of the most important skills such people can benefit from.

And last but not the least, I ensured that I planned the entire session well enough to not have to get up and walk around while it was on. Mango did not know me and I did not want to unnecessarily rile him by making unexpected movements around him. He needed time to get to know me. The children on the other hand, walked straight up to Buster and hovered close to Buster. Never approach an unknown dog. If you would like to get to know the dog, allow the dog to approach you. It is very impolite in the dog world for you to approach a dog – he might feel the need to defend himself.

I learnt from Mango that even a dog branded “aggressive” is capable of being nice if given respect and space. I learnt from the children that many of us are doing the exact opposite of what we need to do in the presence of dogs. Our dogs try hard to learn from us the rules of our world. But we are humans, capable of learning much more. So it should not be that hard for us to learn a few simple rules of their world.

Learn dog-talk

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Nov 23, 2015, 10.13 PM IST

When we think about dogs “talking” to each other most people imagine a hidden language in the barking of dogs. Some brush it off as figments of a Hollywood movie director’s imagination. Both are however inaccurate. Dogs have a rich language comprising of not just of vocalisations but also facial expressions and body language. Turid Rugaas coined the term ‘calming signals’ for this. An animal as social as a dog needs such a language. And the best part is that they use this language with us as well. Learning this language not only enables us to understand our dogs better but in some cases helps us reciprocate the communication too.

Calming signals are used by dogs when they are uncertain or want to communicate peaceful intent. They use it a bit like a polite ‘Hi’. It’s also used when tensions mount and they need to say “Calm down” either to themselves or to the stressed dog / person around. There are over 30 such signals. Let’s look at what some of the most common ones are.

Licking Lips: This is a very subtle signal, most times not much more than just a flick of the tip of the tongue. It’s often easier to observe when others are interacting with a dog, instead of trying to observe during your own interactions.

yawningYawning: A dog will often offer this when you get angry around him. It is often mistaken for the dog’s disinterest in the situation. But in fact it’s his effort to calm people down.

looking awayTurning away: This could be a subtle turning away of the head or a more intense turning away of the whole body. When people try to hug their dog or walk straight up to a dog, a dog will often do this. If a dog is approaching you, turning your head away is a good idea. It’s just polite.

Play bow: We recognise this as a dog’s invitation to play. A call to play is an attempt to diffuse a tense situation and hence is an effective calming signal too.

sniffingSniffing the ground: The dog may suddenly seem to lose interest in the situation and start sniffing when things get tense. Of course, sometimes a dog is just gathering information with his nose. Look for context to know the difference.

moving slowWalking slow or lifting one paw: This is easy to see when a dog spots another animal at a distance. He might slow down or almost come to a halt with one paw in the air. You too can slow down when approaching a dog. It will calm nervous dogs down.

Sitting down: I have often seen this when people are pulling a dog on a leash and yelling at the dog. The dog sits down and people interpret this as the dog being stubborn, while in fact the dog is trying to calm the person down. The dog may also sit facing away.

Walking in a curve: The next time you see two street dogs observe how they approach each other. They never walk directly up to each other. They walk in an arc. It’s a polite way of approaching each other in the dog world. They appreciate the same of humans too. Never walk up directly to a dog.

While you can reciprocate with some signals, don’t assume that it will always be effective, especially when stress levels are high. Exercise discretion.

When do dogs stop showing these signals? Dogs stop giving these signals under certain situations:

  • If they have been punished for these signals in the past
  • If their signals are always ignored
  • If the stress level is too much for them to signal (For example: meeting too many dogs at one shot, so they don’t have time to carefully signal to them and set up “polite talk”)
  • If they are sick or in pain
  • If they are depressed
  • If they are suffering from chronic stress

So a dog might be “talking to you” more than you realize. We don’t always needs words to express do we? Well, our dogs need no words at all. They communicate so much in silence. But most of us listen only when they bark. Once you learn to listen to their silent language of Calming Signals, we might be pleasantly surprised with how chatty our dogs really our. And the irony of their language is that their words are much louder to us the quieter it gets around. So, enjoy hours of quiet observation of dogs or should I say “eves dropping” on dogs 😉

Dog Shaming

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Oct 12, 2015, 09.45 PM IST

dog shaming, calming signals, guilty dog
It’s not guilt. It’s an attempt to calm YOU down

Do you know what Dog Shaming is? If not, here is a quick description. Recollect a time when you came home to find that your dog had engaged in something you deem as “naughty”. Perhaps the food on the counter was eaten or things were destroyed at home. You gasped in horror. Your dog gave you “a look”. He looked incredibly guilty. You admonished him adequately. But his look was just too irresistible. So you grabbed a large sheet of paper and a marker and wrote out “his confessions”, hung it around his neck or placed it next to him and took a picture. If you shared that picture, you were dog shaming.

The whole idea of dog shaming is quite popular on the internet these days. It can be quite hilarious and endearing. In today’s day of social currency being collected in likes and shares, well-executed dog shaming is social gold. True dog lovers though would want to know more. What is going on here? Is the dog truly guilty? How does the dog feel about dog-shaming? Do dogs feel anything at all about such things in the first place or are they oblivious to it? So let’s examine.

The first question to ponder is whether your dog is expressing guilt. Unlikely. There is not enough ethological evidence to support that dogs experience guilt. In fact, more studies point in the opposite direction – that dogs do not experience guilt. Interestingly, there is enough ethological evidence to support that “the look” the dog is giving you is actually some form of a calming signal.
What is most likely going on here is that the dog has been “naughty” by your definition. But by his definition he has only found an outlet for his excess adrenaline / cortisol or his under-stimulated brain. Having found his outlet, he is blissfully resting when you arrive and gasp. He senses your stress, perhaps anticipates that he will be the object of it and starts giving out calming signals as a way to calm you down. And there you have it – the ‘guilty look’. Turning the head away, cowering, furrowed brows, whale eyes (where the whites of the eyes are showing) are all signs of stress in a dog. Your dog is getting stressed and is sending signals out to calm you down.

Here is the rub. At this point, one needs to diffuse stress. Instead, if one continues to interact with the dog (admonishing, hanging boards around and taking pictures), stress only escalates. Escalating stress in a dog is never good news. It’s precisely this kind of miscommunication that leads to bites ‘out of nowhere’.

So, how does the dog feel about dog shaming? The dog may not really know he is being shamed. But the problem the dog has with dog shaming is that when he is signalling to you that he is stressed and that he needs you to calm down, you are most likely making matters worse by interacting with him. As far as understanding his feelings are concerned, he may not have an opinion on where you share those pictures. But he sure has a problem that you are doing it around him.

Isn’t it interesting that something so seemingly benign, fun and endearing can be such a cause of stress to our dogs? Learning their language means learning to read these signals. On Talking Terms with Dogs is an excellent book to learn calming signals from. The first step to understanding dogs is to understand these subtle signals they give and what they really mean. So begin today.