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).


Commands or Negotiations

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jul 4, 2016, 09.37 PM IST

Loose leash walking has many benefits over “heel”

I was recently in conversation with a friend, discussing the difference between “heel” and loose leash walks. “Heel” is based on the principle of instructing a dog. Loose leash walks on the other hand are based on negotiating with a dog. So the discussion between these two methods is one of an instruction based technique versus a negotiation based technique.

Instructions or commands by nature are a power based structure where there is a power imbalance. One is telling another what to do and the other does not have a choice in the matter. A negotiation on the other hand is about finding an arrangement that works for both.

The first problem with a power based system is that, the power imbalance puts our dogs in a place where they don’t feel much control over their lives. They are often looking for ways not to follow what’s been asked of them as a way to reclaim some control. That’s why so many clients end up with me complaining that their dog knows what’s wanted to of him but will not always follow the instruction.

For example, the clients who learn loose leash walking are advised to negotiate with their dogs and strike a deal that on most occasions they will allow the dog to define the walk, but on few occasions they would request the dog to allow them to define the walk. Since the dog has a choice almost all dogs find the deal rather appealing and take it gladly. Noncompliance is non-issue in this situation.

The second problem with a command based system is it’s limited repertoire. Here we try to teach a dog the meaning of a few words. Now there are dogs that have apparently learnt hundreds of words. But we are all not Einsteins and neither are most of our dogs. Realistically this vocabulary is going to be small. Even if we were going to negotiate with our dogs, we would not know how to based on a vocabulary of just commands like SIT, DOWN, GO, COME!

The complicated negotiation mentioned above is not even possible with these words. It requires a far more complicated language. Here is where the knowledge of dog language is useful. When we are tasked with learning their language, we pick up much more than just commands. We learn a much more nuanced and complete repertoire with which we can actually negotiate.

The last problem with a command based system is that it assumes that our decisions are always the better decisions. It discounts the fact that in certain situations a dog’s decision can in fact be better. Rambo came in this morning and I was told he was aggressive. I had evaluated that this was because of Rambo’s fear of dealing with dogs.

We went out on a loose leash walk. We suddenly found ourselves at the mouth of a street with two dogs blocking it and barking their heads of at us. We did not command Rambo to come away, but offered the option of walking away as a choice. We could do that because we were not relying on a command, but instead on polite dog language to suggest another option to the dog. He saw our suggestion, considered it and not only walked away, but led us through another less stressful path back home.

His instinct was right about not taking those two belligerent dogs on. His human guardians were stunned watching their “aggressive” dog walk away. What commands
had failed to achieve, a negotiation had achieved beautifully on our very first loose leash walking session.

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Walk like a pro

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jun 6, 2016, 10.17 PM IST

Loose leash walks are calming for both humans and dogs

Hope all of you had a great weekend. We had a great weekend for sure at the Hundeskole. We had a walking workshop. A lovely dog visited us for the workshop and participants got to watch what a mere two hour workshop can achieve in terms of teaching a dog how to walk well without pulling. A few friends I was talking to before the workshop asked me if the visiting dog had already been trained and wondered how I was going to conduct the workshop and train a dog in under two hours to get the dog walking well. But that’s just it. It’s so easy once you have the right equipment and know the fundamental philosophy behind a loose leash walk.

A loose leash walk is basically a contract between human and dog – as long as the leash is loose, walking happens. But when the leash is tight, walking stops. In addition, loose lease walk relies on body language based communication to tell your dog what you need. So you need to show with your shoulders which direction you want the dog to walk in. Body language communication is far more effective with dogs, compared to verbal communication which is not their ‘native tongue’.

Let’s assume that all’s well and you are walking nicely on a long loose leash with a dog. Suddenly the dog gets excited and bolts in front, tightening the leash and breaking the contract. So the walk needs to stop. Then you need the dog to walk back to you to release the tension on the leash so that the walk can resume. But to show your dog that he needs to walk back, you need to communicate with your shoulders that you want the dog to come back to you. So you face away from the dog and wait for the dog to return.

Once I demonstrated this technique to the participants, they were very skeptical, telling me that the dog would not return. So we practised it in the garden. What did we see? The lovely ‘demo’ dog had initially had an argument with her handler, insisting that she wanted to go in the opposite direction the handler wanted her to walk in. We just stood there, facing opposite directions. After a 30-second non-verbal argument of this kind, the dog finally understood. This was not like before. This was a new style of walk. She got what was expected of her. As our hands-on session progressed, her arguments became shorter and by the time we were ready to try the walk on the street, she was walking like a pro.

There are a few tricks to keep in mind. First up, this walk works only with a non-retractable long leash that is at least eight feet long with an H harness. Secondly, people take time to get used to the long leash. So you need to practice the walk in a garden, basement or terrace of a building, till you have mastered it. You don’t drive on the streets till you have mastered the skill of handling the car’s accelerator, brake and clutch. It’s the same for long leashes. And finally, if your dog is not normal and is exhibiting signs of stress or other behavioural problems, first get them addressed by a behaviourist before attempting loose leash walks with the dog.

The participants of the workshop all walked in with skepticism and walked out eager to try this. Most felt that their dogs would enjoy it the most. That’s what comes out of a technique that actually understands the emotional wellbeing of dogs. If there is one piece of advice I can give to people who want to make their dog’s life as pleasant as possible – learn about dogs and their emotions. It goes a long way.

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.

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.

Why the canine-human bond is so special

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Feb 29, 2016, 08.46 PM IST

wolf wars
Dogs beat even our closest relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos) when it comes to reading human emotions

Why do we like dogs? As I sit and ponder over this question, the comforting soft fur that I feel between my fingers, as I stroke my dog, seems to be all the answer I need. We all know the answer, without actually ever having to ask the question. A few smart people across the world are trying to provide some objective answers to this question and their findings are indeed very fascinating.

Dogs and humans go way back. The first records of dogs evolving from wolves date back to at least hundreds of thousands of years. In all that time, we have come to be hopelessly addicted to each other. A cat, for example, is a master of survival and will manage even without a human to latch on to. Dogs, however, relentlessly seek out humans. Even street dogs are seen hanging out at bakeries and meat shops, begging for food and, more fascinatingly, begging for attention.

The ancient bond

How did this come to be? Long, long ago, friendly wolves that were not as shy as their peers started visiting humans more frequently. Humans saw the benefit in having these friendly animals around. A bond started forging. The bond formed was so strong that it started altering both species. The human brain started relegating some of its tasks to dogs. There are studies that suggest that around the time this bond forged, the human brain got smaller, getting rid of some its ability to sniff and hear. The proto-dog’s brain also got smaller, having relinquished some of the intelligence work to humans.

This was a true symbiotic bond.

It was not just their ability to sniff out prey and intruders that attracted us to dogs. Wolves and proto-dogs have family structures very similar to humans. The mommy-daddy-children unit stays intact for very long, unlike other species where one or both parents leave off-springs as soon as they get a little independent. There are some theories that even suggest that the human family unit might have been modelled after the wolf family unit.

The other thing that attracts humans so much to dogs is the dog’s ability to facially emote. Unlike many other animals, dogs and wolves have several facial expressions that they use to communicate. While humans have grown to read and understand these expressions, what’s more fascinating is that dogs have gotten even better at reading our own expressions and body language. They know what we are feeling before we are able to articulate it. Basically, we don’t need to put much effort into communicating with each other. Dogs beat even our closest relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos), who cannot read us as well as dogs can.

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Feb 15, 2016, 06.33 PM IST

bangalore hundeskole
A good guide is to wait for your dog to come to you, pet for a few seconds and take your hand off. Wait for further instruction

Are we giving our dogs adequate attention? Are we giving our dogs enough space? Surprisingly, in the case of many hyper dogs, the answer is “no” to both questions. Sounds contradictory? Let me explain.

Clients with hyper dogs that are excessively vocal often complain that their dogs bark non-stop. I asked a client I was working with recently to maintain a diary of all the times her dog barked. She was also asked to record her opinion of why the dog was barking. She insisted that the dog barked “all the time” and for “no reason at all”. I insisted that she maintain a diary nevertheless and spare a day to make entries, even if it meant she was writing every five minutes. She returned with a surprising revelation – the dog barked only a few times in a day and most of those times, the dog seemed to have something valid to communicate.

One instance baffled her. She had put a bed out for her dog and towards evening he barked incessantly. She had fed him, walked him, brushed him and spent time with him. It just was not evident what he was upset about. Then we figured out that his favourite bed was damp. We had to replace the bed and he stopped barking. I went on to teach her what the appropriate response was for the remaining times when his reasons seemed valid. The dog needed her attention each of those times – not just attention, but appropriate attention that carefully observes the dog and addresses his concerns.

A few hyper dogs bark for attention. I was once in the company of such a dog and his human. As I observed, I noticed that the lady was constantly giving the dog negative attention. For the dog, this was highly rewarding as he was getting exactly what he was barking for – attention. He did not seem to mind that the attention was negative.

This was inappropriate attention the person was giving to the dog.

On another occasion a client was talking non-stop to the dog, giving him commands at all times, petting him several times and constantly getting him excited. Little surprise – the dog was hyper. The woman’s unrelenting, high-energy attention was making the dog happy, but overly excited. This dog could have done with a lot more space.

A dog will come to you when he needs attention. Highly affectionate people sometimes forget this and keep going up to pet the dog, unknowingly violating the dog’s personal space very frequently. A good guide is to wait for a dog to come to you, pet the dog for a few seconds, take the hands off and wait to watch the dog’s reaction. If you look up ‘Calming Signals’ on Wikipedia, you will see the tiny signals dogs give at this point to indicate they are not interested in the petting. It can be as subtle as a quick lick of the lips. If he is asking for space, give him space.

At the same time, if your dog is trying to get your attention, either through barking or other means, try to give quality attention, which means don’t just ask the dog to keep quiet, but to carefully observe what he is drawing your attention to. Walk the fine line between being attentive to your dog and yet respecting his space.