Dog Behaviour

Sue Gilmore MA FCFBA


Our communication skills are influenced by our upbringing and interactions with parents, family, friends and work colleagues. Our characters are shaped and developed to enable us to be part of human society. Subliminally, we communicate using facial expressions, gestures and verbal sounds (not necessarily words), so that our body language betrays our feelings without us always needing to resort to spoken language. Take for example, when we speak on the telephone we still use all these components of human communication, but the person we are speaking to only hears our voice and the inflection we use to emphasise certain words or phrases. In such circumstances, we need to convey our spoken message in a manner that is clear to the listener.

Now, put yourself in the place of your dog. We chatter away telling her what to do, what not to do and many other things in between that simply serve to confuse her. When she does something not to our liking, often inadvertently, we raise our voice or shout; the tone is  sharp and our body language generally matches to ensure that she understands that her behaviour displeases us. Using complete sentences when talking to the dog is confusing at best, so it is far better to keep things simple and use the trigger words clearly so that she immediately understands what we want. Giving a calm, firm command to “sit”, “stay” or “come” helps the dog to act without hesitation and give us the response we want immediately.

It is often clear to me when visiting a home to resolve dog behaviour issues that there are two sides of the story. The owner tells me all the things that are wrong with the dog and the dog’s behaviour tells me another story. The owner is frustrated that the dog does not respond to a command, such as “sit” even if it is shouted and the dog is confused by the owner becoming unbalanced and shouting the command louder and louder, to no effect.

Dogs don’t speak any particular human language – German Shepherds are not fluent in German; Spanish water dogs are not fluent in Spanish – but that does not mean that we cannot communicate with dogs verbally.

Dogs are pack animals and in a group of wild or feral dogs, they communicate amongst themselves to achieve a social, balanced and harmonious pack. They seldom are aggressive towards each other and have a system of signals that indicate that they want to play not fight. It works well.

All animals – lions, buffalo, elephants, wolves, etc. – use their energy as the basic means of communication. When two dogs meet they circle, sniff each other and tentatively, but calmly, indicate their intentions. There is a respect between them; they are calm; their energy is relaxed; they are comfortable being together. Dogs are drawn towards calm energy, so it is important that we remain calm with relaxed energy. When dogs are aggressive towards “stranger dogs” there is a reason; perhaps one dog resents the attention of the other having been on the receiving end of an attack previously or it may be that the owner has not been proactive when she needs protection from an  approaching dog that gives off signals that it has aggressive intentions.

Now, consider the difference when the dog is on lead and the owner sees another dog approaching. The human reaction is to pull the dog into us, the lead becomes tight and we give off pheromones, the heart rate increases and our energy is excited by the fear of what may happen. The dog picks up these “flight or fight” signals and becomes more and more agitated.

The problem for most owners is that they miss the signals given by their dogs long before any action takes place. Their body language communicates what the dog is thinking, so it is vital that we learn to observe and understand these early signs before they become actions. To give our dogs confidence in our ability to make the right decisions as good leaders do, we must remain calm and assertive. When another dog approaches, it is vital that we are proactive. Communicate to your dog that you are in control by keeping your body language strong, your speech calm and simple. It is our duty as dog owners to be alert and protect our dogs. Make the right decision and it is unlikely that a nasty incident will occur. Communication is key: Dogs are confused when they receive mixed messages, so Keep It Simple and enjoy your dog!