Due to our conversation-heavy communication style, dogs are considered nuanced since they use tons of body language to convey feeling. This can make owner-pet relations strained if the human isn’t up to the task of learning a new language. Learning “Dog” is something that pet owners can pick up with time and experience. Some behaviors, such as a play bow, a whole body whipping tail wag or growling and snarling are quickly picked up. What’s missed is in the details. When your dog’s body language changes, it’s a huge boon in understanding their intentions and concerns. These changes are related to your dog’s threshold for new experiences or effects of old concerning triggers. If you learn how to pay attention, you can often create a more confident and comfortable pet who doesn’t feel the need to become reactive.
What is a threshold? A threshold is essentially an emotional thermometer. At the low end, you have a relaxed and content animal. At the high end, your dog is a overly aroused, aggressive or terrified. By understanding the various stages of the threshold thermometer, it will assist you in understanding whether you can turn a bad situation into a positive one - or if retreat is the best option. If you’re new to learning “Dog”, please click this youtube video link for a short introduction to deciphering body language. For an in-depth presentation of body language, we recommend “The Language of Dogs” DVD by Sarah Kalnajs. Lastly, you can click this link for a list of canine Signs of stress and anxiety. Get familiar with them and try to highlight the ones your dog shows most often. Note when it happens: a certain area, time of day, with a specific person or animal, when a resource is present, etc. Keep in mind to evaluate the dog’s entire body. A simple lip lick may mean “I’m thirsty” when combined with soft eyes and a loose body. Typically you’ll see more than one at a time to let you know that you really are seeing stress.
Why is all of this so important? Because reading “Dog” can make potentially bad interactions into beneficial ones. So here’s a scenario: You’re walking your dog down the street when he sees a motorcyclist get off of his bike about 20 feet away. Your dog slows it’s pace, starts to stare, lets a few abbreviated barks and starts to back up. This would be a perfect time to whip out some treats and see if you can get your dog’s attention. If you can, ask for some simple behaviors you can reward and then leave - going the other direction. This session will open the door to your dog becoming more comfortable with a motorcyclist next time since the adventure was marked with yummy treats and there was no confrontation.
Some people might see this as their dog being a “wuss” and proceed by dragging the dog over towards the motorcyclist. “See! It’s just a person. Hey Buddy, could you pet my dog so he can see you’re not scary?” This would be a perfect way to create a long standing fear or even a phobia. This person looks weird, remember? When ordinary people or animals look weird, dogs often see them as concerning. Alas, as you drag your dog over, his ears go back, he licks his lips and then pulls to get free. His tail’s tucked, he keeps looking away - he’s screaming “NO!!! SCARY ALIEN!” The closer you get to the person, the more your pet fights.
At this point your pet is trapped, since running away isn’t much of an option for a leashed dog. A dog that’s forced into a situation may feel helpless and shut-down. A “shut-down” dog is one that’s so traumatized that it gives up. The dog may not fight you, but the effect of this situation will lead to greatly intensified fear in the future.
The flip side of the coin is your dog may attack. When a dog is over its threshold it goes into “fight or flight” behavior. If there’s no way to leave, the dog will attack defensively. By understanding the early warning signs that your dog’s over threshold, this can be averted. Many dogs learn to bite because the previous warnings: barking, running away, growling, etc were not heeded. Biting ALWAYS works since the object of their ire normally will retreat - which is what the dog wanted in the first place. With such a record of success, the dog may use it as a favorite in its “leave me alone” repertoire.
To help you understand thresholds, please feel free to click on the link (and share) our PDF version of our UC Davis Threshold Thermometer. Some say actions speak louder than words, but unless we’re all on the same page, misunderstanding can lead to painful life lessons.