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.

Happy Birthday Turid

Turid’s zest for life is contageous

August 15th, apart from being the Indian Independence day, is special to me for another reason. It’s also Turid’s birthday. Her grit, determination, energy and intelligence have been a huge inspiration to me. Having trained more than 60,000 dogs in her life and taught in more than 25 countries across the world her experience is mind blowing. And yet she spends extraordinary amounts of time learning new things, sharpening her brain and observing dogs to pick up something new. If she has absolutely nothing to do, I find her solving puzzles.

Turid with her dog McKenzie

It’s very interesting to watch a dog around her. The dog is instantly drawn to her. She says nothing. She does nothing. Yet she exudes a calmness that reassures the dog and the dog seems to find the one person in the room who seems to get him. Really get him. He goes right up to her and seems to exchange a few quick brief notes with her. None of the showmanship we often come to expect of dog trainers.

A true advocate of dogs, she does not hesitate to speak up for them, even if it means saying hard hitting truths. She expects humans to be adults who can handle the truth. She knows who she is batting for and there is not a doubt in one’s mind about that for a single moment. But if one is willing to put aside ones own ego and listen to what she has to say, she is an encyclopedia on the subject. I have been learning from her for a few years now and yet every time I sit down to listen to there is something new I learn, not just because her knowledge is so vast, also because it is so rapidly expanding all the time.

It’s hard to be in a profession that is in it’s infancy. This is particularly true of the profession in India. So I often have to reach out to her directly for mentorship. Not once have I not got the help I need. She has the unique ability to look past the help I seek and actually give me the help I need. She has rarely helped me directly on any of my cases. She always insists that I think for myself and get to the solution myself. But she has a way of boosting my confidence, helping me find my resource pool and draw strength from it.

It’s not just the dogs, but the profession as a whole that has gained a lot from someone like her. Her knowledge combined with her ability to mentor is an asset to professionals across the world. Read more about her life and her work here and feel inspired!

Turid watches as McKenzie explores

Evaluation of dogs

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Aug 10, 2015, 10.13 PM IST

It has been yet another week of intensive learning – much of the focus has been on evaluation of dogs. Though it is not common in India it is fairly common in other parts of the world. What started out as a tool to be used for dogs in the defense industry has now extended to several other areas such as therapy and temperament evaluation of shelter dogs. In some cases it has even become a leisure activity for enthusiasts. While its uses are varied, evaluation can be a great tool for behaviourists to understand dogs and see problems that their caretakers may not be able to articulate.

However, dog evaluations suffer from a certain insensitivity in the way they are being conducted world over. Many involve putting the dog under severe duress and pushing the dog to his/her limits – just to know where those limits lie. So it was refreshing to learn about the new methods of evaluation that Turid Rugaas is developing and propagating across Europe and hopefully in the US and other parts of the world, soon. 

While in India we don’t have any structured evaluations for dogs, I still believe that these methods can be used quite effectively to understand our pets, get to the bottom of what might be ailing them and further behavioural investigations. These evaluations require minimal resources, no specialised equipment and provide great insights.

The evaluations happen in a confined space that is relatively free of distraction. The space has to be enriched with some interesting objects such as boxes, rags and other odds and ends. Everyday objects that one would find around home should do just fine. This is what we call an ‘enriched environment’. The dog is allowed to freely explore the space while humans remain calm passive observers. Everything that the dog does from the start to the end can be quite telling.

We spent a lot of time observing the gait of the dog, the back line, the number of times the dog pees, the number of times the dog goes back to his/her guardians and his/her general interest in examining the objects around the room. 

The gait and back line tell us about the health of a dog. A dog exhibiting an odd gait is in pain. He/she will consequently have behavioural problems too. A dog that pees a lot is not marking territory, but is stressed. Such a dog’s life needs to be examined to figure out the source of stress. A dog that is yo-yoing back to its owners too much could signal helplessness. Such a dog may need some confidence building exercises and therapy. A dog that is unable to examine the objects and is just flitting across them could indicate high adrenaline. This dog would require reduction in exercise and therapy too. A dog that shows no interest in the objects could suggest that he/she has never really had an opportunity to explore. He may need some mental enrichment. Each story is telling and fascinating. 

Through small and subtle ways dogs tell us a lot. However, at no point should a dog be put under duress. Putting fingers in the food of a dog, scaring a dog, hugging a dog just to see what he tolerates is absolutely unnecessary. It may be a good idea to take your dog to a new place, sit back and just observe. What is your dog telling you?

Understanding barking

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jul 13, 2015, 10.15 PM IST

Barking is a component of a dog’s language. It may be annoying to humans, but it is meant to communicate something. Given our desire for fast and easy solutions we might just shush the dog and not really listen to what he/she is saying to us.

Unfortunately this can result in the dog feeling unheard, who then resorts to more barking, a bit like us shouting when we feel unheard. Alternately a dog may end up looking for other forms of communication such as biting, or outlets for frustration. The first step in resolving barking issues is to identify what the dog is trying to tell us.

All barks are not the same. Let’s analyse six different kinds of barks as documented by my teacher Turid Rugaas in her book Barking: The Sound of a Language. 

Excitement Barking: It’s a high-frequency hysterical-sounding bark. It can be accompanied by whining. One observes it when a hyper dog is highly aroused, like when people come home or the dog is going out in a car or there is another dog in sight.

Warning Bark: It’s a single “woof” sound meant to convey a warning. It’s not going to be loud and prolonged. But it has an important message. Often people don’t even notice this bark. So a dog feels like his/her message was ignored and then takes charge of the situation. This can result in aggression or a full-fledged barking problem. Acknowledge warning barks.

Fear Barking: This is a long series of high-pitched barks, similar to excitement barking. But you can sense the dog’s fear. The bark could end in a howl. A classmate of mine once explained this: “When a dog has fear in his voice, you just know it!” What a dog is afraid of is hard to predict and sometimes hard to understand. But it’s important to accept it and respect it. A dog will take time to overcome his/her fears. It’s important to note what s/he is expressing fear towards and give him a chance to get away from it.

Guard Barking: This type of barking occurs when a dog feels the need to defend himself/herself against a perceived threat. The barking is often accompanied by plenty of growling. Due to the growling, it is often mistaken for aggression or dominance. But the need to defend oneself comes from a fear. It is a pity when such dogs are then reprimanded or dominated. It pushes them further into a corner and can force them to go into a shell or snap back. A dog that feels a need to guard has to be removed from that position immediately. Further training can help the dog learn to be less fearful in such situations.

Frustration Barking: This is a monotonous bark that keeps repeating and sometimes ends in a howl. It is born out of boredom or utter frustration. Such dogs are crying out for help. They need mental stimulation or need some serious reconsideration of their lifestyle. A behaviorist should be able to help in such a situation

Learned Barking: Such barking can be recognised by looking at the dog. The dog will bark and then keep looking back at people to see what reaction he/she is getting out of the people. He has learnt that barking gets him a certain reaction. Giving him any reaction, including yelling at him, gives him exactly what he is planning on getting. Work with a behaviorist to correct this behaviour. But do not reprimand him. That will make matters worse.

Stress escalation ladder

Calming signals, dog language, escalation ladder, canine stress
Dog bites don’t come out of the blue

It’s sometimes good to remind ourselves of what our dogs are. Dogs are relatives of the modern day wolf, both having evolved from a common ancestor. Is it not fascinating that when we chose to domesticate an animal, we chose a predator and welcomed him into our homes. Irrespective of the form the current dog takes, he does share genes with a predator and those instincts will expose themselves in extreme conditions. What I mean is that all dogs, when pushed far enough, will bite!

When a dog bites, it’s rarely out of the blue. There are several signs the dog gives us. Turid Rugaas identifies seven different kinds of stress signs that can be observed. Learning to recognise these can help you take corrective action early and prevent bites.

At the first there are  Displacement Behaviours and Calming Signals. Displacement behaviours include scratching or sniffing the ground. Calming signals include yawning, lip licking, looking away, turning the head away and moving slowly. A dog may exhibit one or more of these behaviours and signals.
Humans have similar behaviour. Imagine yourself in a social situation with two people starting to get into a heated argument. You might find yourself have displacement behaviours like shuffling your feet or clearing your throat awkwardly. You might find yourself trying to defuse the situation by making a joke or changing the topic. That’s exactly what your dog is trying to do with Calming Signals. The dog is attempting to defuse the situation.

If the situation does not defuse, then the dog may start showing Stress Reactions. The dog may start panting, shaking off adrenaline, sweating under the paws, trembling, shaking, showing the whites of the eyes, raising the hackles and dilating his pupils. When under extreme duress, we too show similar signs. Think about the last time you were shaking with anxiety. That’s how your dog feels when he is shaking.

At this point, if the threat is still not neutralised and the dog is not seeing an option of leaving, he will start to Focus. There will be no more calming signals. The dog may close his mouth shut and just freeze. If we were pushed to a corner and saw an inevitable threat heading our way, then we too would focus. Basically we are preparing to defend ourselves.

Dogs warn that they are ready to defend themselves by some ritualised behaviours. There might be growls and showing of teeth. At this point, your dog is using every last resource he has to let everyone around know that he is feeling immense stress and he is not finding a way out. So he is preparing to attack. Finally, if none of his several attempts to communicate worked, he will go for a Lunge and finally a Bite.

So you see a bite is really the last option for your dog. He has a wide repertoire to communicate his feelings. But his language is subtle.  He may move from one set of signals to the other, trying different tactics to communicate with the environment around him. As you can notice, very little here is vocal. So we really need to watch and look carefully. These signs will be swift, but will be there for sure.

Sometimes, a dog may bypass a lot of this and go straight for the bite. Such dogs are either ill or have had an extremely traumatic past. But this is very rare. In most cases, it will suffice just to start reading your dog’s language and then take him out of any threatening situation at the earliest. As he learns to walk away from stressful situations, he will learn that he has the option of walking away. That will give him confidence to start facing his fears. 

Let Sleeping dogs lie

Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 6, 2014, 02.00 AM IST

 Have you ever asked yourself: Is my dog getting enough sleep? If you have not, you should. Just like how you need eight hours of sleep to be healthy, your dogs too need their full quota of sleep. A normal, healthy, adult dog needs up to 16 hours of sleep, while puppies, old dogs, sick dogs and even stressed-out pets need a lot more than that. Dogs living in cities are easily stressed, because they are like a sponge — they absorb ‘our’ stress.

Dogs are social sleepers. They need company to feel secure and to sleep well. Observe the street dogs — regardless of how intensely they guard their food and territory from other dogs, they all come together at night, perhaps on a sand pile in front of a construction site, to sleep together. If you want your dog to sleep tight at night, then the trick is to let him sleep in your bedroom. If you don’t want to share your bed with the pet, then move his doggy-bed into your room. Dogs are also polyphasic sleepers — they don’t sleep for 16 hours at a stretch; they sleep in short bursts and often move from place to place when they sleep. As long as you are home, they like to sleep in a place from where they can observe you. So it’s a good idea to keep a little blanket or rug under the dining table, in the living room, bedroom, and outside for your dog to sleep; simple measures that go a long way in improving a dog’s well-being.

My teacher always says: “Every dog deserves a sofa.” What she means is: They just need some elevated surface to sleep. Dogs like that. I often see pet parents complain about dogs wanting to sit on the sofa. I provide two solutions. For the first three years, I did not let my dog Nishi get on the sofa. Instead, I got her a sofa of her own. When the guests settled down on the sofa, she settled on hers, as if she was ready for the conversation that was to ensue. The other option is to get a nice dust cover for your own sofa and let your dog on it. After the first three years, I caved in and let Nishi on our sofa and nothing has changed in our relationship, except for having made us all happier.

About 70 per cent of a dog’s sleep is deep sleep. This is the time when the brain cells repair and regenerate. About 30 per cent is REM sleep. This is when they relive the activities of the day and figure out how to cope with it. Pet parents are familiar with their dogs eating or whimpering in their sleep. That’s what is going on inside their furry heads. So, let their beds or sleeping areas provided be large enough for them to stretch out, and be able to express these actions. Dogs let their guard down completely when they are asleep. It is their most vulnerable state. They do not fall asleep till they know they are safe and secure. So when they are woken up suddenly, it can be unnerving. A startled dog may cower, yelp, growl or sometimes even snap. So, remember to let sleeping dogs lie.

I hope you are now armed with enough knowledge to give your dog good quality sleep and when he’s asleep, no matter how adorable he looks, don’t hug him or wake him up. Hug a teddy bear instead and let your dog sleep in peace.