You may wonder why I would be writing about human behaviour on a dog training blog. Our behaviour actually impacts on our dogs more than most people would think, the way you behave around your dog and other dogs can influence their behaviour.
Humans have a certain way of interacting with one another that sometimes flies in the face of what is appropriate for dogs. When two people greet they smile, walk straight up to each other and offer a handshake or friendly kiss. Humans meet face to face and with some form of physical contact, this needs to change when greeting dogs.
The correct way to approach a dog is to allow them to make the choice of whether to interact with you or not. Some trainers describe it as allowing dogs to ‘vote with their feet’, if the dog wants to interact with you they will move closer and if they move away from you this is a clear disengagement signal, dogs do not pretend to want to be near people.
Many people put their hands out to allow the dog to sniff them, this is good, but what is ideal is to crouch down and keep your hands close to you and allow the dog to come right in for a sniff without trying to touch the dog. If the dog stays close a nice scratch under the chin or on the chest is often what they love. Many dogs also love the base of their tail (bottom) scratched. Ask the owner where their dog likes to be touched.
Patting on the head, slapping the chest and back and grabbing the face are all poor ways of interacting with unfamiliar dogs. Actually, most dogs hate being patted on top of their head, even by the people they love.
Another very human interaction that dogs sometimes have difficulty with is hugging. Chest to chest contact feels great for us, another human gesture is putting an arm around someone. These human behaviours create closeness between people and is often done for care and comfort. These same behaviours are not naturally understood by our dogs.
Dogs will often express their need for care through jumping, licking faces and vocalising, something humans find difficult to live with. Your dog was born understanding and practising these behaviours with their mother and siblings so teaching a dog to go against these behaviours requires consistency and practice. Teaching your dog to enjoy being hugged and touched in more human ways will help a dog adapt to living in a human-dominated world. Sweet talking and massage together with hugging are great ways to teach your dog to enjoy such human close contact.
Always watch a dog’s body language if you are engaging in close contact so you can respond appropriately to their needs. If a dog leans away during hugging you should release them. Bites often occur when a dog feels trapped.
Our emotions impact on dogs too. Dogs are very good at picking up how we are feeling, I believe they do it through body language cues and scent. When you go through a mood change your physiology changes, heart rate changes, hormones are secreted and your breathing may change, all of this happens without us even thinking about it and is often out of our control. Your dog is able to detect these changes.
Quite often because of a dogs poor behaviour in the past people then start to also feel anxious about certain events triggering another reactive response in their dogs. A behaviour change program with a good trainer should also help the handler manage their own mood so that tension is not continually picked up by their dog. A good behaviour change program is as much about changing the handler’s response as it is about changing a dogs response.
The same can be said for basic training, if you are feeling tense, tired or hungry it is a good idea to forget training until you can help yourself feel better. Training requires patience and attentiveness and unless you can deliver these you would be better off asking nothing of your dog and perhaps driving to the park that day, or exercising in an enclosed area or avoiding any situation your dog must normally be worked through.
When you think about it dogs are remarkably forgiving of the mistakes we make in their eyes. We are two completely different species with completely different ways of communicating. However, both of our species are capable of social learning and behaviour change, it just takes time.