Does your dog ever look at you dead in the eyes as if they want to tell you something very important…but you’ve no idea what?
Realistically, it could be something as small as needing to go outside to relieve themselves (or a guilty glare because they’ve already left a nice surprise for you in your left slipper). Or, it could be a warning – maybe the UPS guy is walking up the driveway with a parcel and your dog sees him as a possible threat.
Whatever the case, your dog is using body language like ear and eye position, body posture, facial expressions, and movement to communicate with you. The only problem is that you don’t ‘speak dog’ and coincidentally, your dog doesn’t ‘speak human’ either.
Since dogs can’t use verbal communication to talk to you, they’ll try to communicate with you non-verbally through their behavior and vocalization (whining, barking, growling, etc.).
Understanding your dog’s behavior is crucial if you want to build a trusting, harmonious and deeply connected relationship with your dog.
When your dog tries to tell you something with their behavior that you don’t understand, it can be so frustrating. Not just for you, but for your furry friend too!
The good news is that you can learn to understand your dog’s behavior better. With careful attention, dedication, and patience, you’ll be able to decipher what your dog is trying to tell you so that you can become a great partner for and with your dog.
So, here are a few of my top tips (or lessons) to help you better understand your dog’s behavior:
Lesson 1: ‘Bad behavior’ is a cry for help
Since dogs can’t talk it out, they act it out. This means that they use actions to communicate their feelings. When your dog feels happy, they wag their tail. However, when your dog feels uncomfortable, vulnerable, worried, unsure, or unheard, their behavior escalates from a whisper to a scream.
Whispers start small and they can be tricky to catch if you don’t know what you’re looking for. If you have a ‘reactive’ dog, they might lose it around other dogs. Excitable dogs may pull you towards something or bark at something they want to get closer to (or something they want to sniff). A distracted dog might refuse to come to you unless you’ve got a delicious meaty treat in your hand. Fearful dogs tend to hide or bark in defense when a visitor walks through the front door.
All of these reactions may be viewed as ‘bad behavior,’ but, what if you changed your perspective? What if all of these ‘bad behaviors’ are simply cries for help?
When a dog lunges at another dog or barks hysterically at your elderly neighbor for no apparent reason, it’s because the situation is making them feel stressed out, fearful, or frustrated. Sure, it doesn’t make sense to us because we know the other dog is friendly and the elderly neighbor is just watering their plants and neither poses a threat to you or your dog.
However, your dog doesn’t know that. Your dog is stressed because they’re thinking – I’m out here protecting our space from unwelcome visitors because nobody else is taking care of it!
Your dog feels responsible to deal with the situation in the only way they know how – reacting to it with this so-called ‘bad behavior.’
Lesson 2: Pay attention the signs!
Most, if not all, bad behavior (or cries for help), start with a whisper. Think back to a time before your dog started to react this way to the trigger.
Did your dog lean into you during a seemingly ordinary situation (such as passing another dog on a walk)?
Or, maybe your dog held their head up a little higher and became more alert whenever a similar situation presented itself?
These little actions were all whispers that your dog tried to communicate with you to tell you that they felt a little uncomfortable. If you didn’t recognize the whisper, you probably just got on with your life. Meanwhile, each time your dog found themselves in a similar uncomfortable situation, they realized that you weren’t listening to them. So, the whisper became louder.
Your dog started to bark at the trigger, pull you in a different direction, tuck its tail between its legs, and so on. All of these behaviors are your dog’s way of telling you that they’re uncomfortable.
The worst thing you can do at this point is to dismiss your dog’s communication as irrelevant.
Your dog needs to trust you, right? However, each time your dog’s whispers fell on deaf ears so to speak, your dog became convinced that they needed to take things into their own paws. After all, if you’re not going to do something about it, someone has to. And, that someone happens to be your faithful companion.
The entire problem grows worse when you become hyper-vigilant. Your hyper-vigilance only confirms that the trigger is something dangerous, which makes your dog even more hyper-vigilant as a result.
Sadly, this cycle means that the trust that the two of you once had begins to leak through the cracks. You can’t trust your dog to behave reasonably, and your dog can’t trust you to keep them safe.
Lesson 3: Listen to your dog’s whisper
So, what is the remedy to all of these issues?
The answer is simple – listen to your dog’s whispers!
When your dog tells you in their own way that they don’t feel safe, calm, or happy, believe them. Make a choice that can help turn things around. Go somewhere else for your daily walk. Change up the routine so that your dog feels differently about the experience. Make it a positive experience instead of a negative or frightful one.
Honor your dog’s whispers by creating experiences that build confidence and trust. Trust is so important because when trust runs deep, you and your dog can handle any experience together.
What should you do next?
A lot of the time, your dog’s “bad behavior” is a sign of stress. Instead of thinking about their behavior as a sign that you’ve got a very naughty pup on your hands, think about it as a sign that there’s something else going on.
If your dog gets anxious when strangers come into your home, they might duck behind your legs, hide under the kitchen table, or run into a different room. Your initial reaction may be to try and make your dog comfortable around strangers. You might even invite more people over more often in an attempt to increase your dog’s exposure to visitors in hope that it will get them used to the concept.
Now, instead of ducking behind your legs, your dog’s level of communication has turned into a loud shout. They growl, bark, and snarl at the stranger. Or, your dog might have the opposite reaction and tremble with fear or hide behind the couch until the strangers have left.
Listening to your dog’s whispers before they escalate into screams is key here.
The best thing to do if your dog is fearful of strangers in the home is to make sure that your dog has plenty of space to move away, completely unrestricted. Don’t try to coax your dog to approach the stranger if they don’t want to. Respect your dog and they’ll see that you’re role modeling that visitors are nothing to be worried about.
Be your dog’s role model!
One of the biggest misconceptions is believing that your dog somehow decided to be “bad.” Your dog woke up one morning, realized you hadn’t left him with a meaty treat before leaving for work, and ever since then, they’ve acted out. This just doesn’t happen.
Your dog does NOT want to be “bad.” Exhibiting “bad behavior,” is your dog’s way of communicating that they are stressed. Once you realize this, it’s going to make a huge difference. When our dogs behave this way, it’s our job to come up with the solution.
What can we do to change our behavior or the circumstances to make it easier for our dog?
All good relationships are based on trust.
When our dogs feel safe, calm, and happy, they’ll begin to trust you more. We also need to notice what disrupts that state of being and do something about it.
When we’re connected with our dogs in our heart, mind, and actions, we can easily role model that the trigger that’s stressing your dog out, is of no concern.
Remember – when we feel safe, calm and happy, so do our dogs!
Would you like to work with me to learn how to create a partnership lifestyle for you and your dog?
Request an invitation to join us in the Brilliant Partners Academy when enrolment next opens, go to: dancinghearts.link/getinvite
Listen to the Enlightened by Dogs Podcast Episode related to this post by clicking here.
Watch a short video trailer of the episode below: