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Dogs Who Might Need To Learn ‘Dog Language’!

Parent Category: Dog Talk
Created: 14 October 2014

Most dogs are pleasant and well behaved, especially with those that they share a home with… otherwise we wouldn’t have so many pet dogs in our homes!

You will probably accept that not all people understand dog language and you can read a lot about how people, especially children, need to learn how dogs communicate. But it might surprise you to know that such skills aren’t necessarily ‘natural’ for all dogs?!

Dogs need to learn how to ‘be’ with other dogs, reading any warning signals and understanding when they can approach and when they must stay away from or leave other dogs alone.

It all starts with puppies who, just like toddlers, will experiment, push the boundaries to test the rules and can often behave in ways that irritate ‘adults’! So dog ‘parents’ will normally teach their puppies how to behave, mostly by example and sometimes by chastising them when they overstep the boundaries… and of course siblings will quickly inform each other if their behaviour causes discomfort.

It is perfectly natural for puppies to play fight with each other and, as you no doubt are aware, their claws and teeth are like needles during the first few months of their lives… Although puppies are built to take rough play with each other (as indeed are older dogs), a claw or a sharp tooth can catch an eye or nose and cause an unfortunate injury to another dog, so it is useful to check for cuts and deal with them promptly.

Lessons continue in the interaction that puppies have with their humans who will (hopefully) introduce them to other dogs in puppy classes as well as ‘social’ situations with other dogs. This is vital in the first few months of their lives when they are very open to learning and development.

Breeders’ (anyone who oversees the birth and early life of a litter) play an important part in the early weeks before puppies are able to go out into the world, but sadly not all ‘breeders’ are aware of this important responsibility and do not always prepare puppies with necessary life skills. Such a lack of competence on the part of a breeder can most certainly lead to problems later on and can even be the reason why some dogs are put up for re-​homing — often more than once — and you can appreciate that, just as with children, being re-​homed can cause further behavioural issues with dogs!

Puppies do not always have many siblings to interact with; depending on breed, average litter sizes may vary between about four and eight — it is also possible for there to be a litter of one! The smaller the litter the less puppies will learn from each other about how to communicate and socialise with their own kind. With a single puppy there are no immediate peers to learn from and even when there are two puppies, one will inevitably have a stronger character and may assume ‘top dog’ position in the litter.

It is likely that the lessons a puppy learns, or doesn’t learn, in its very early weeks and months will determine how they will relate to other dogs throughout their lives.

A great breeder will be aware of the potential issues and will endeavour to overcome them by controlling the social development of puppies from an early age. Conversely puppies will not develop appropriate social skills if reared in the wrong environment. For example, puppy farms and pet shops do not provide a loving, supportive, clean, domestic environment in which puppies can properly learn; and inexperienced dog owners who decide to have puppies from their beloved dogs can be just as guilty.

Puppies need to be in an environment where they can do and try behaviours which have consequences they can learn from. This does not mean only with other puppies — it is important for them to experience how to succeed in relationships with older dogs.

Early ‘socialisation’ is important, though is often assumed to mean getting dogs used to all the sights, sounds and things they will encounter in our world and our homes. While this is important, it is equally important for puppies to be socialised with other dogs, preferably well-​balanced, confident, tolerant, adult dogs.

Puppy classes may help with socialisation, but they don’t always provide positive experiences for a puppy; this will depend on the individual personality of the puppy and how well the classes are run.

If a class is chaotic then a puppy can just as easily learn bad social skills. A sensitive breed can easily become fearful of other dogs if they are subjected to attack or bullying by a larger, stronger puppy. When a puppy retains the memory of a frightening experience it can make them more fearful or defensive in later life.

Adult dogs have normally learned to approach each other with caution, paying attention to body language and not wading in head on. If the signals indicate acceptance of contact, dogs will normally curve round each other and start greeting by sniffing each other’s rear and following this they may sniff ears and muzzle to gain information about each other. 

Greeting actions show whether or not there is willingness to interact. However, if a dog turns away or at the very least turns their head away, this is the first indication that they are not in the mood for interaction. If a dog persists in an approach in the face of such signals, the next signal may be more aggressive.

Dogs are not naturally aggressive to each other — they normally provide adequate body language signals as to whether or not they want to be approached or indeed in close proximity. While basic training is best conducted in a one-​on-​one basis, it is always useful to be able to enable adult dogs to meet and be with each other dogs to encourage calm interaction.

Remember the three Fs: “Flight — Freeze — Flight”. If a dog doesn’t want to interact with another dog and can get away (i.e. they are neither on a lead nor backed into a corner) then they will perform the three Fs in order.

If dogs are a distance apart then turning and walking away or turning their head away can indicate that they want to be left alone. If they are close up and it is not possible to escape (i.e. they are either on a lead or backed into a corner) then they may first turn their head away and freeze, probably with their mouth closed too and sometimes showing the whites of their eyes.

If they are made to walk towards it, because their owner doesn’t understand their signals, or an approaching dog doesn’t understand and continues forward there may be a warning lip curl, showing teeth, then a growl and if that doesn’t get the message across the next communication may be raised hackles, a snap — not necessarily a bite, just enough to show that they are an unwilling participant in the encounter.

Pushed further there is likely to be a dog fight!

Most importantly you need to stay calm yourself when your dog meets another, because your dog will sense your reaction and may even mirror your fear or anxiety if you are not comfortable.

While of course it is very useful for people to understand the body language of dogs and use this knowledge in interactions with their own dogs, they should also watch to see that their dogs understand the signals they are given by others and if they don’t, then some training with their dog is called for!

It is always good if you can to set up training for your dog with other dog-​owning friends who have well-​balanced, confident, tolerant dogs that you are familiar with. And always train your dog when you are calm and are not under time pressures.

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Be Safe With Your Dogs!