Monday, May 01, 2006

Dogs, Dogs, Dogs

My husband took this picture of our family member Natasha this past weekend. We adopted "Tash-ka" from the local SPCA when she was a year old (she's 13 now), and we could immediately tell by her submissive disposition that she'd been mishandled sometime early in her life. She is the alpha pet by virtue of size, but she is so submissive (or is she just a gentle spirit?) that she lets the cats have her bed.

I haven't seen the show The Dog Whisperer very often, but I'm always intrigued by it. The dog behaviorist on that show, Cesar Millan, always says he's "rehabilitating people," because we, quite frankly, just don' t know how to read dogs. The result is often a dog who is euthanized when it was really the human's fault that he/she was bitten. So, if you're a dog owner, or if you're around dogs much at all, you should know something about their body language. Here are some tips from my current project, For the Love of a Dog by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.:

Some dog body language to look for:

1. Open or closed mouth. Think about the way your mouth is shaped when you smile: it’s relaxed and partly open. The same is true for a dog. Watch your dog: when there’s a bump in the night or a strange scent in the air, your dog is likely to close his/her mouth. It is usually a sign of going on alert.

2. Soft or “frozen” body. The relative softness or stiffness of a dog’s body is often accompanied by the opened/closed mouth. A dog who is lounging by the TV enjoying a pat from you will probably have an open mouth and soft body. The dog on alert will have a closed mouth and a stiff body.

3. Wagging tail. Someone once told me of the dog who wagged its tail right up to the moment it bit you. Fact is, there’s language in the wag of a tail. If just the tip is wagging, best beware! If the tail is wagging the rump, that’s better, and if the wag goes all the way up to the dog’s shoulders, you should be in very friendly company.

4. Approach. Dogs rarely approach one another from the front; it’s usually a sideways approach with no direct eye contact. Consider doing the same when you meet a dog for the first time.

5. Tongue flicks. A flick is, I guess, a shortened lick. A dog who flicks its tongue several times in quick succession, is nervous or fearful about something, or the dog may be communicating a submission gesture to another dog. Pay attention to how often a dog flicks its tongue.

For serious dog lovers who are planning to introduce a puppy into their homes: The U.S. military has developed a plan for preparing newborn pups to be more problem-solving adults and to better tolerate stress. But you have to follow the plan to the letter, or it could backfire. So read up on this before trying it; the regimen should be done on pups from birth to thirteen days, so there’s a small window of opportunity.

I'm kind of ashamed that I didn't take the time to learn more about dog behavior before I adopted one, but it's fascinating stuff.


Janet said...

my husband and I are dog sitting for the most well-behaved dog in the world. A tail-wagger "all the way up to his shoulders". A combination sheep dog and "whatever?". Neighbors' comments range from "cute" to the "funniest-looking dog I ever saw". Trimmed for the summer, he has floppy ears and fringes of hair nearly covering his enormous, sad, brown eyes. (after reading your blog, I'm consciously seeking a smile and flick) He follows my husband around the house and loves walks with both of us. I have fantasies about not returning him to my stepdaughter, but dognapping him!

Melanie Gold said...

Hi Janet! Since writing about this book, I've become a big fan of The Dog Whisperer and Cesar Millan. Glad you had such a good time doggy sitting!