Do You Speak “Dog?”

At least once a day someone posts a video on Facebook of a dog doing something “hysterically funny” — like that “naughty” German Shepherd who jumps through a glass window, or the Boxer who stands in a kennel at a shelter with his “sneaky” eyes darting back and forth.

These videos get thousands and thousands of “likes” and comments.

Nine out of 10 times, when I watch them, my heart sinks. The dogs aren’t being funny or feisty or stubborn; they’re scared.

How is it possible that anyone could watch a dog run around howling and barking and then jump through a freakin’ GLASS WINDOW and not see that the dog is terrified? I’d bet my Mini Cooper that he has separation anxiety.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the suffering that these dogs endure. Is there a root cause underlying all the videos and photos?

The answer is yes: It’s people.

Specifically, it’s people not knowing how to speak “dog.” I certainly didn’t before I met Emma the Beagle. I used to laugh at those memes too.

But after spending the last year observing and writing down Emma’s body language every single day during her separation anxiety training missions, I’ve gotten a Ph.D. in fearful-dog speak. I’ve discovered that when Emma is scared or anxious, she gets itchy. She yawns. She licks her lips. Her eyes widen so that you can see more of the whites (a.k.a. “whale eye). She whimpers and howls and barks. She urinates. Sometimes she shuts down and makes herself as tiny as possible; other times she growls and snaps.

Also, Emma’s face is extremely expressive. Take a look at the photo above. The left is what Emma looked like when we drove her home from the shelter two years ago. Back then I shared that photo with friends to show them how adorable Emma was. Now I look at it and I shake my head wondering how I didn’t see how distressed she was.

The picture on the right is what Emma looks like now. I’m not sure she could look any more relaxed. Can you tell the difference?

It seems to me that we are facing a crisis of epic proportions. Millions of people share their homes with dogs, but if the videos I’m seeing are any indication (not to mention the conversations I overhear at the vet or dog parks), a majority of them do not know how to read their pups. How many dogs are being punished for “misbehaving” when that behavior is simply a signal that the dog is frightened?

We desperately need a campaign to help educate people to speak “dog.” I’ve got all kinds of thoughts floating in my mind how to accomplish that, but I want to take some time to put together a strategic plan. If you have any ideas, please share.

The next time you see one of those videos, look closely. Is the dog being funny, or is he scared?


24 comments on “Do You Speak “Dog?”

    • Thanks. There seems to be quiet a bit of interest in spreading the word, so hopefully we can get out there and help more pups!

      • It is so true and nobody seems to care about the dogs. Sometimes I feel like shaking a person till his teeth rattle like marbles maybe that will wake the human race up. I love my five babies and o boy if i have to go somewhere I cry my eyes out even if its only for a day. I really hope that people read this and understand what they are doing to their dogs. Terrible.

        • There is a lot of bad info out there. What saddens me most is that I do think so many LOVE their pups and want the best for them, but they’re working off of bad information. Hopefully we can help people get to know their pups better, so that everyone can have a happier life.

  1. Tracy, I agree we need to see dogs as subject, not objects. You just might be interested to glance at my book Why It’s OK to Talk to Your Dog. It is on Amazon. Alternatively I would be delighted to post a copy gratis, if you provide a postal address. Best wishes, David Paxton, Coochiemudlo Island, Queensland, Australia

  2. Couldn’t agree more with you. I think that the ‘pushers’ of dogs (breeders, businesses) as well as the regulators of dogs (municipalities, regional governments), and savers of dogs (humane societies, rescues, vets, veterinarian schools, trainers, training schools) all need to:
    1. get educated about evidence-based dog behaviour, training and management; as well as the devastating facts about dogs’ current situation in our society
    2. take responsibility for the animals they are placing with people, and ensure that people have up-to-date information, access to appropriate EB information, and know where to go to get help
    3. municipalities and humane societies need to partner in a BIG, Public and visible way to start educating the public on how to behave around dogs

  3. Hi, I have a little rescue pup who bites when I try to pick her up when she’s lying on her back. Could that be a sign that she was abused or hurt before she was found? She is now only 12 weeks old and was found at approximately 8 weeks on the freeway with a broken leg and lacerations. Thanks.
    Joëlle Meyers South Africa

    • Hi Joëlle,

      You know, it might be; it might not be. Some dogs are genetically wired to have anxiety, so you just don’t know.

      It’s so vital to properly socialize puppies so that they learn to not fear people and things and learn to not bite hard. Can you find a force-free dog trainer near you? Let me know if you need help finding someone. I can put some feelers out for you.

      • Interesting about hard wiring. More and more evidence is suggesting brain plasticity and that genetics is just not destiny. My own thoughts on this are that we need to scrap breed standards and breed dogs based on health and a sound temperament to enable them to cope to be able to live alongside us with the challenges of the 21st century.

  4. Agreed that it’s mostly a lack of information among dog owners. It certainly was for me 11 years ago when I got my rescued beagle/cattle dog pup who, even at 10 weeks, was reactive to other dogs. I made a LOT of mistakes with him in those early times, thinking I was doing right by him. It’s been a long journey for both of us, and by observing his body language and recognizing his discomfort (and taking appropriate action), we have an awesome trust relationship. I’m so grateful to him for being my instructor all these years.

    • I love it. So many of my friends have gone into dog training and behavior consulting because of a relationship with one pup. Emma is my muse. I learn something new from her daily.

    • Interesting that you mention that. I read parenting columns in the newspaper all the time where you could very easily replace “child” with “dog.” It seems to be human nature to project motives that don’t exist. I have an article coming out in The Bark in the fall that goes into this a bit more.

  5. Tracy – she looks exhausted with stress on the left. And on the right, a totally different dog…..relaxed, safe and with a belly I would find very hard indeed to resist scratching and smooching.

    You have hit the nail on the head. It’s hideous. Familiarity does not equal behavioural understanding. I think having a dog with some social challenges and resulting inappropriate behavioural issues can teach you so much if you are the type of person who is genuinely empathic, curious and determined to do whatever you can to help your companion who just so happens to be a candid. It seems that so many people just haven’t got a clue about living with this totally different species – dogs – and continue to treat them like primates who walk on four legs.

    Stanley Coren recently got a lot of flack for trying to remind people that not all dogs like being hugged using examples of photos posted all over the web. A lot of dogs find ventral on ventral contact uncomfortable but some have been conditioned to tolerate it. Just a species thing so why do we get outraged? Similar issues abound with people thinking that brachycephalic dogs with BOAS who are literally suffering with every breath, are cute. Endless memes and examples on the web of dogs with apnoea and failing asleep upright who uneducated folks think look cute and sweet.

    Oh I could go on but I’ll spare you! 🐶

    • Interestingly, it was parenting two cats that taught me that being close to animals does not equal understanding animals. Briscoe and Curtie were littermates, who got along beautifully for most of their lives. But later on, Curtie became very aggressive towards Briscoe. We had to bring in a behavioral consultant to reintroduce them to each other, or he would have killed her.

      Some things the consultant taught us: We had three cat towers, but all were against walls. She moved them in front of the window so that B & C could watch The Nature Show. She taught us about prey drives. Curtie needed enrichment. He needed to chase mice and play games. We discovered the joy of “Treats in His Tube” — we put kibble in the cardboard roll from inside paper towels, so that Curtie could hunt for his food. Curtie was experiencing redirected aggression. (Interestingly, it happened on multiple occasions, all when Hubz and I were away on vacation. Me thinks the Separation Anxiety Bug had hit my household well before we ever met Emma.)

      We learned these things after the guys had been living with us for seven years. SEVEN years! Everyone who knew us knew how much we absolutely adored those two. We did… so much! But, we didn’t know anything about their needs as cats. Totally clueless. And I had read “The Everything Cat Book” and everything!!!

      It’s what motivated me to learn about dogs. I could never share my home with other non-human animals and not understand them as their own species. It turns out that I adopted a graduate-level behavior project in Emma the Beagle, but I have the time and the desire to know everything there is to know about her and help her. So, it’s all good.

      We are on a mission to give others this same epiphany. I’m excited to say that we do have plans under way to launch a full campaign in 2017 to help teach people to speak “dog.” I’ll keep you posted for sure.

      • Oh my wow! You have had such an interesting journey. Seven years is a long time and the are millions of other pets going through something similar and not because their owners are cruel or malevolent. But because they lack the education, information and knowledge of application. I have totally been there. My heart is heavy with how we ‘taught’ our first family dog. A little baby dachshund was my first dog aged 7. Father insisted on a rolled up newspaper and rubbing his nose in his poop when he literally shat himself in fear. Yet, he still loved us….my heart was heavy and it felt intuitively wrong. Sophia Yin talked about her journey in dog training with such a heavy heart….

        Call me an idiot but grass root education has got to be key – I mean teaching kids in biology about animal learning behaviour, anthrozoology basics and the associated neurobiology has got to be more useful than dissecting a frog ,yes?

        Can’t wait to hear about your education project/initiative!

        • Wow. What an interesting thought– when we’re reaching out to organizations to participate, maybe we could work in schools as well. In broad strokes, I’m envisioning a month similar to the APDT’s Train Your Dog Month, but this campaign would be all about teach people how to read and understand their dogs. What if we got into the schools…

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