Body Language in Dogs

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been pretty busy with new clients.  Its been amazing to work with a 12 week old Belgian Malinois during a week long day training session.  He worked the whole time without usual puppy behaviors of being distracted or majorly nipping.  Well, he had a bit of a nipping fit, but that was primarily because I locked myself out of the client’s home and his rope toy lost its charm.  Otherwise, a really incredible puppy to work with and train!

On the other side of things, I met a couple of clients who hired me to work on behavior modification.  They were interested in the “why’s” their dogs do certain things.  As I began to listen to their stories and to observe their dogs, I started thinking about how and what is the dog communicating to them and if the owners were picking up on their dog’s signals.  So, I decided to ask them if they notice lip licking, yawning, play bow, rigid body; all of which are more noticeable and easier to see.  The answer I received from them is, “no, my dog doesn’t do those things”.  That left me wondering about a few things; have the dogs not learned some of those communication signals, did the dogs suppress those lower level calming signals because of being punished for showing them in the first place, or did the families not notice what the dogs was communicating to them?  I left that question hanging around the back of my head.

After a few days, I had another session with a client.  The same question came up about how their dog, Benny communicates with them and if they notice any lip licking, yawning, scratching behind the ear”?  This family also said, “no, I’ve not seen those behaviors from Benny”.  We started working on some basic obedience training.  Then, it happened.  After, one of the kids gave the dog a hug and a kiss, Benny began lip licking, and yawning.  I asked the parents if they noticed the same thing I did with Benny.  They were shocked to see him give those signals as though he’s never given them before.  I reiterated, those are lower level calming signals.  Benny is communicating he felt stress when one of the kids hugged and kissed him and Benny communicated he wanted that to stop.  I mentioned to the family, in order to ensure they protect Benny, they are charged with the responsibility to interrupt whatever is causing him stress and praise him when he’s calm.  In this case, Benny doesn’t like to be hugged so tightly, so I encouraged the family to pet Benny under the chin and to be gentle when giving him affection.

Body language in dogs is an amazing mode of communication and one us humans really need to pay attention to at all times.  Many of the calming signals are subtle and they happen between dog and human interactions and between dog and dog interactions and between dog and whatever interactions.  A dog giving calming signals is the only manner by which a dog has to voice his pleasure and displeasure with his environment.  Now, I’m curious, how many dog owners who read this, observe their dog’s body language and how do you interpret it?

Jack is not enjoying the camera in his face!
Jack is not enjoying the camera in his face!

I took several pictures of Jack.  After awhile, he began to look away (another calming signal) and then he did this.  This one of him was amazing to see a full lip/nose lick.  After this pictures was taken I removed the stress away from him and praised him.

I learned so much from reading On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas.   It was interesting seeing a picture of the behavior alongside an interpretation of what the dog is communicating.  Its enhanced my understanding of how the dog feels in different situations and the topic of body language is a central component when I’m educating clients.  There are many other resources which delve deeper into the subject of body language and I urge dog owners, if they don’t already know, begin learning about it.  A better understanding of what your dog is communicating to you, and interpreting it correctly, will only enhance your relationship with your furry friend.

Pinch Collars No More…..

While working with a Golden Retriever, Sadie, on leash reactivity (which is like saying, aggression or lunging, incessant barking at strangers and other dogs while the dog is wearing a leash), I came to find out the family utilized the dog training services from a local company which relied on pinch collars for getting the desired behaviors.  Well, let me tell you, pinch collars may seem to work with immediate results, but most everyone who uses pinch collars runs the risk of creating reactivity in dogs. I can attest to this as I was instructed by a trainer (before I became a trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques) to use one on my basket case of a Jack Russell when we first rescued him.  What soon developed and I eventually corrected, was leash aggression towards strangers, other dogs, motorcycles, people on bicycles and even children.  The pinch collar is designed to apply pressure to a dog’s neck when the handler gives a pop of the leash.  Since we’re human, we may not give enough of a pop of the leash at the first correction in order to completely eradicate the problem behavior.  When that happens, the dog develops resistance to the pinch and then the handler requires more and more pop of the leash with frequent intervals to correct the behavior.  What results is the dog associates pain towards those very things you’re wishing for him to stop reacting towards and then aggression is imminent.  Since I was intimidated and highly uncomfortable to use the pinch collar, my timing was off and eventually, the trainer wanted me to lift Jack up by the leash (while he’s wearing the pinch collar) with all four paws off the ground while he was barking.  Let me tell you, he still didn’t stop barking.  I didn’t know what she would ask me to do next, swing him around like a helicopter!

As I’ve become more familiar with Jack, I realized, he is WAY more responsive to positive reinforcement and rewards when he does a desired behavior rather than receiving a positive punishment for a undesirable one .  He’s easier to train, he is able to learn new behaviors in a very short amount of time and even his reactivity to strangers, bicycles and motorcycles diminshed due to rewarding him when he focuses on me and when he’s quiet when we pass any of his triggers.

I’m very happy to have a different approach in training Jack and other dogs.


Hiking with the Bears

A great Sunday for a hike up in the Franklin Mountains!  Jack and Bernie love hiking, from smelling all the nature smells, to chasing lizards and mountain bikers.

Our hike started from our home which is conveniently situated about 1/2 mile from the Chuck Heinrich trailhead for the state park.  We made sure to carry enough water for all four of us since we live in the Chihuahuan Desert and there is no water to speak of up on the trails.  Well, I guess we could strip water out of a cactus, but I don’t know how to do that nor do I want to be desperate enough to do so.

As we entered the park, we started on Tin Mine road which is an old jeep trail.  We took the first left onto Cardiac Road which begins a pretty good climb up some hills.  Eddie and I like to get up the hills before we let Jack and Bernie to sniff, but the bears have a different agenda!  Since we only get to the trails about a couple of times a month, I’ve found Jack and Bernie need to sniff more than if it was our usual route.  So, we make sure to give them some time, but also make sure to get our momentum back.  The weather was cool and a bit windy.  Since we’ve lived here in El Paso for a couple of years, we know what Jack and Bernie are capable of during specific times of the year, so we definitely plan accordingly and get our hiking in during the earlier times of the day and during the cooler times of the year.

We continued up Cardiac until we reached a trail which intersected with Tin Mine and we hiked back down.  The entirety of our hike lasted about 2.5 hours.  They sure do love getting outdoors and exploring…..

Bernie Exploring Tin Mine Cardiac Trail Jack on Cardiac

Some tips for hiking with your dogs:

1. Make sure you plan your route accordingly.  Know your terrain and get a sense of the duration of the hike so you can be sure you bring water and food, if necessary.  Water is a definite!  You can check out for ideas for routes and printable maps.  You can also visit the local state park ranger office for guidance.  There are 2 (that I know of) in El Paso.  One is at McKelligan Canyon and the other one is located at the Tom Mays Unit of the Franklins.  The park rangers are friendly and can answer any questions.

2. Know what you and your dog are capable of in terms of exercise.  The last thing you want to experience is that you or your dog weren’t ready for a major hike, say up Mundy’s Gap to North Franklin Peak.  First of all, there are some major climbs, but also the duration of the hike could take you easily all day.  You want to be sure you are able to safely get to your vantage point and safely make it home.

3.  I would highly encourage you to read the guidelines for taking your dogs in to the state parks.  Check out to read more on the park rules.  Jack’s love/hate relationship with mountain bikers most certainly keeps me on my toes.  Most weekends, the trails are packed with mountain bikers, so I make sure Jack stays on his leash and I maintain awareness of my surroundings wherever in the park.  Some mountain bikers are good with alerting you they are behind you, but at times with a curve in the trail, sometimes  feel like they come out of nowhere!  For that reason and for it being rattlesnake country, I make sure both Jack and Bernie are leashed and not poking around under bushes.

4. A part of the park rules and is a rule of thumb, pick up after you and your dog!  Its important for the ecology of the park and for everyone’s enjoyment to ensure you take out trash which includes poop.  I know I hate carrying around used poop bags, but they make backpack for dogs, so now your dog can carry his or her own waste!

5. I would also suggest to read Good Canine ‘Trail Etiquette’.  This gives some additional tips and things to consider when out for a hike with your dog.  Rules for Hiking with Your Dog

Enjoy the trails and I hope to see you out there 🙂

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