Body Language & Dogs

The One About..... Body Language

Very often I get the incredible opportunity to stand in the midst of sheer genius, and it just rocks my world.

‘Aaah Penny, how do you spot these rare and lofty creatures?’ I hear you ask. 

Easy, they are normally the ones who email me begging for help with their uncontrollable, aggressive, hideously fearful dog, and then turn up for their appointment telling me that they know everything about dogs, have done everything right and completely ‘Pooh-Pooh’ any suggestions I might have regarding their handling of said poor animal.

I love these people as you can probably tell.

There’s a special place in my heart for them. Or is it in my toilet? 🤔

I had one such person just last week; a young millennial (Oh, I do love me a proper millennial, especially one that’s maybe read an article about dog behavior, they’re the best) who had asked about boarding her Husky with us.

The husky had severe separation anxiety, she said, and she had been quoted $4,000 by a boarding facility to keep the dog for a 12 day stay they had coming up. 

I agreed to meet her and immediately summoned to mind the kind of damage Joe Walsh might have done to a hotel room in his hey-day being perpetrated by a stressed-out crazed know, we’ve had a few of them in our time. Why else would the proposed bill have been $4000 if not for the possible damage she might wreak?

Separation anxiety cases can be quite hard on a boarding facility. 

One particular dog we dealt with years ago, Solo, had done so much damage at home that by the time his mum came to us for help, her marriage was in peril over the dog. Thankfully, despite a few torn up couches, dog beds and chewed baseboards at the start, we managed to get that one straightened out and all was well within about four or five months but it’s really  no laughing matter for the family dealing with all of this when your house looks like Beirut after you’ve gone to dinner for a mere two hours.

We do separation anxiety very well here. 

It’s one of the things we do best actually, and are known for, as the environment is absolutely perfect to take the dog’s mind off of missing its owners and our unique blend of slow and gentle integration, hands on care combined with calm, quiet guidance makes every dog relax and understand this new situation very, very quickly.

One of the things I absolutely insist on is that I work with both the owners and the dog, in order to effect change, as, quite simply, if you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got...nothing is more true in dog handling and dog care.

It’s pointless from our end working for weeks and months on a dog here, introducing wonderful calm protocols to effect stress free departures, when Mum and Dad still act like parents with kindergarten kids on the first day of school as they leave....

‘I won’t be long, be back soon. Sniff, sniff, watery eyes....... You have a lovely day, sniff, sniff....waaaaaaahhhhhh, waaaaaahhhhh, why do I have to go to work and leave you? ........waaaaahhhhh.......sniff.......wipe snotty nose......sniff some more........strangulated coughing sound........clear throat.........I’m okay, I can do this, go on sweetie, go play with your friends....WAAAAAAAAAHHHH’

Okay that may have been a bit overly dramatic but we actually did have a client that bad once. Poor dog was a bloody basket case and oh dear God, the owner would not change one iota of her own behavior! I finally begged her to rehome the dog and get a gerbil.

Nope, she wouldn’t do that, and now is a prisoner in her own home, unable to leave the dog, who is also a prisoner in his own home with ‘crazy psycho bitch mama’. 

True story...and a sad one.

Anyway, as usual, I’m digressing.

Lord, I’m such a squirrel at a rave, aren’t I? 

So there we were, walking together while I observed her, the dog, and their relationship, and the first thing I noticed like someone was holding up a huge yellow ‘pointing finger’ sign, was that the dog didn’t look at her once when we met, not when I met the dog for a few minutes inside the car or when she got out of the car.

That’s not a good sign. 

In the driveway, as we walked down to the gate, the dog pulled her on leash and basically wanted to hare off doing her own thing while mum just got jostled along for the bumpy ride.

No check in, no ‘okay if I just wander over here, mum?’

Mum embarrassedly covered the moment with inane chatter and started with what would turn out be a long list of excuses/reasonings that I would hear.

As we entered the field, mum asked her to wait and gave the release command which was well done, but still the dog made ZERO eye contact with her owner. Her ears were up, tail was up, she was raring to go and anxious to claim the space as her own.

For the next 45 minutes I watched a dog who had not a care for her owner other than as facilitator for her mobile adventures, something I have seen many times in my career and something I was very guilty of myself until a very famous and clever behaviorist (Mr. John Rogerson, whose teachings have humbled me a million times) taught me otherwise.

This realization was the turning point in my relationship with Nelson ‘Mr. Naughty Pants’ Miller, the Weimaraner who started me off on my journey as a dog behavior counselor. 

I watched the body language display of both woman and animal in front of me completely fascinated. This is not some voodoo shit but it is in fact the way that every single behavior counselor evaluates a situation.

We watch more than we listen, then we listen, only later will we talk.

Body language is the way every single dog communicates best, sometimes what comes out of the mouth is at complete odds with what the body is saying, so we trust the body every time.

I can’t tell you how many times an owner has branded their dog as aggressive because they growl when they see another dog, but when we look at the dog we see a fast wagging tail, ears soft, eyes soft, commissure nice and relaxed, all the hallmarks of ‘Hey nice to meet you.’ 

You can’t even imagine how many times I’ve given someone I love, or like the look of, a proper bear hug while calling them an unsavory name. 

Body language is where it’s at, pure and simple. It never lies.

I instantly saw so much that was wrong but also so much that was fixable with just a few relationship tweaks. I was actually quite excited at the prospect, I really like it when the answer becomes apparent so quickly, oftentimes it takes much longer. 

When I first started to broach the subject of maybe her changing their routine and lessening the outdoor adventures they had scheduled (three or four times a week it was a gathering for this, a group for that, urban mushing once a week, lure coursing, training- you name it, she had signed up for it.....the dog’s social schedule was quite punishing) mum cut me off straight away telling me that they ‘love their time together’.

I tried to explain that in the very best of relationships, each partner should spend some time at least with the other doing nothing; just breathing together, sharing quiet, perfect moments looking out at the world together where you get to know each other properly and learn to communicate without words.

As humans, when you first date, you go on a string of whirlwind outings, listen to each other talk and find out all you can about each other.

Later, you settle down and have moments of nothing, where you just sit together and ‘be’.

Those are the moments of true bonding, of finding comfort and pleasure in each others company.

How well would you know your spouse if you were only ever at a disco together?

Yes, you’re spending time together, but are you really learning about each other? 

The beauty and value is always to be found in the quiet, the unhurried ....

A constant manic pace can be the underpin of stress.

We start every relationship with dogs who are stressed by going back to basics, grinding the manic to a halt and then restarting the core relationship and putting in what might have been missing from the get-go.  

We love to very often do exercises with our clients where they practice using only facial expressions on their dogs, sitting silently for ten minutes at a time, and lessen the reliance completely on voice commands.

What eventually transpires is a dog who looks at you to see what you want him to do, rather than a dog who does what he fancies, goes where he pleases and keeps an ear half-cocked in case you utter a command. 

This was exactly where this girl and her husky were, but she refused to see it.

When I asked her about maybe taking her off of the poor quality Purina Proplan diet she had her on, she wouldn’t hear of it. Her vet had suggested it, she wasn’t going to change or listen to why huskies should eat more of a fish based diet and that was that. 

When I asked why she walked her dog in the hot summer on evenings instead of in the early mornings when it was way cooler, her answer was that it was a better time to do it.

‘Okay there, Missy, clearly you’ve never heard of heat exhaustion.....’

When we discussed tackling some leash work exercises that encouraged her dog to pay more attention to her owner, this girl had done every exercise under the sun and had no need of learning any more, thanks very much.

When I broached the subject of her losing her squeaky assed voice when talking to her dog like a three month old baby, she had been told by her dog trainer that talking like that was the right thing to do and she wasn’t going to change it.

When we temp tested her dog with Hoss, the husky was a little overbearing and confident so we decided against one of the other dogs we had lined up and instead used Libby, one of our very frequent guests whose mum has given permission for us to use her as an evaluator. 

Libby is an incredibly gifted dog in that her responses are always absolutely spot on. 

If a dog is playful and approachable, she will respond in kind, but if a dog is being an overbearing asshole, then she will quickly and vocally put them in their place with one quick word and a growl.

She’s a thing of beauty to watch and we are getting more and more thrilled with uncovering this unexpected treat of a dog every time that she is here.

Libby is herself a formerly issue-ridden dog and knows a thing or two about separation anxiety, so she was the perfect example to use as to what can be achieved with our particular protocols.

The husky was right away overbearing with Libby, placed a heavy paw on her shoulder right after first seeing her (absolutely NOT in play mode....eyes were hard, ears were back, tail was ramrod straight) which is definitely NOT good manners.

Libby, having first approached the husky with a kidney bean wiggle butt, wrinkled eyes in a doggy smile with a furiously wagging tail, once accosted, immediately put her in her place beautifully with a quick growl and an air be honest the kind of thing I’d felt like doing to the husky’s mum for about an hour by this time. 

I’d seen all I needed to see and we ended the dog/dog evaluation shortly after without bringing other dogs out to test her; normally we will use three or four.

This dog’s extreme boorishness would have spelled disaster in a pack situation; her need to be in charge, her total lack of need for human direction, her absolute knowledge that she could do whatever she wanted, her way of impinging herself physically upon another unknown dog in a strange setting....oooh, plenty of alarm bells there for me.

‘Nope, sorry’, I said, ‘she would have to be sidelined and worked separately until her manners improve, for the good of the other dogs here who just want to have a nice time’.

The tightened lip-line, hard stare and creased up under eye of her mother told me everything. 

Anger. Lots of it. Bubbling away nicely right below the surface, ready to come out and slash me at any minute.

When we sat down in the kitchen and I introduced the subject of calm, quiet, wise and benevolent leadership being used to calm and fortify the dog, Oh Lord, that’s when she became the absolute fountain of knowledge.....spewing forth before I had even finished the word ‘leadership’ with her thoughts on domination, pack hierarchy and interrupted me to tell me about a study she had once read about wolves by ‘this guy who started the whole wolf study thing’ that proved there was no pack hierarchy with wild dogs and that dogs are never ever dominant creatures. 

Of course not dearie. And the world is flat. Oh look, is that a unicorn?

Honestly, listening to this for, by this time, an hour and 45 minutes, my poor brain was addled.
What the hell was she even doing here?

If she knew everything and was hell bent against listening to a single bloody word I said then why would she want to waste her time and money on this?

On the way out, I tried to get her to spend ten minutes following an exercise in leadership but there was so little buy-in and so much eye rolling (yes, really!) I just finished up there and then and bid her goodbye.

I wrote to her the next day and said that I couldn’t take her dog or her money at the Ranch because even though the dog was fine, with an easily fixable problem, I couldn’t work with her.

I suspect that’s why someone else gave her a price tag of four grand, I’d want at least that much to put up with her shit.

The response I got was typical of someone who felt that they could do no wrong.

I was apparently useless, didn’t know shit about dogs, my body language reading bullshit was all hocus-pocus and not based in science, I had no formal education, her other ‘trainer friends’ were way better than me, I knew nothing about huskies in particular and clearly I hated people who did urban mushing. I shouldn’t have used Libby for a temperament test, I should have used someone who was not going to be a problem for her dog. 

(That’s right, lovey, we should temp test all dogs wanting to come and enjoy group play using only perfectly non-reactive dogs, (stuffed dogs even, or maybe a rock?) as  of course ALL dogs that come here are perfect at all times and there’s never a cross word. Temp testing all dogs with dogs that act and react like normal dogs but who are guaranteed ‘safe’ is a terrible idea, right? 🙄).

.........Well, she WAS right about one thing, I don’t like urban mushing for a husky in 97 degrees of heat on a hot sidewalk in the city of Atlanta, no ma’am, I just don’t. I think you’re a dick if you put your dog through that.

But, as to the rest of it, who am I to argue in the presence of such a genius? 

I was kind of confused as to how I went from ‘highly recommended by her friends’ when she first emailed me to a complete dill pickle in just a few days but trust me, I won’t be crying into my pumpkin spice latte because she doesn’t love me.

As I said to her, not everyone’s got to love me and I’m not that fabulous that I’m perfect (I’m just saying that to look good on paper, I actually do think I’m the dogs bollocks and that I should be in charge of the world) but when you seek advice, doesn’t it make sense to at least listen to it, then decide later? Don’t we learn by looking and listening, not by talking?

So I guess really, what I’m saying here is that I actually have not one but TWO Dicks of the Week this week. Bit of a BOGO situation, really, eh?


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