I have a true confession. I thought I was pretty good at observing our dogs’ body signals, but I had not recognized until recently that our dog Boon’s last behavior before she starts to snooze is a very deep exhalation. Ok, in fairness, she doesn’t make noise doing this and you’d need to watch her chest pretty dang closely to watch the break in her breathing pattern so I wasn’t being totally oblivious.
For much of her time with us, Boon slept at night in her dog bed as she has loads of positive associations with it. She had come to us after an accident resulting in a significant spinal injury that required being crate rested. Luckily she quickly acclimated to this so being chill on her bed is pretty second nature and she quickly moves into a calm, restful state without a lot of steps or adjustments. In contrast, some dogs take many steps and display lots of different body signals as they wind down and get comfy.
At some point, Boon decided that sleeping with her humans was better than her bed which is how I finally observed this final signal. Her level of closeness is literally doing a kind of dog pile on a human in order to go to sleep so one night I felt her draw in a deep breath and quickly exhale and out go her lights. I now watch for this signal as it is a barometer for whether she’s going to be able to sleep or whether I need to up her medication to support her health issues. It’s subtle, this communication we’ve got going, kind of like a whisper, but it has implications on how well all of us are going to sleep that night or not.
We humans could probably do a lot better about learning dog body language and their signals and it will likely build a stronger, positive relationship. I’ve worked in several countries whose national language was not English. Taking the time to at least learn some vocabulary for greetings and basic communication really paid off in terms of relationship building and also just not being an ‘arse’ American.
My mother grew up in Japan at a time when English was not being taught in schools so when she arrived in the U.S. her English proficiency was limited and as she anticipated returning to Japan, her English language skills didn’t grow much. I wish I had $100 for every time someone started speaking louder to her thinking this would improve communication; no she didn’t have any hearing limitations. I don’t know what makes a person think that speaking louder to a person when there is a language barrier is the thing to do but I’d have a decent-sized savings account with how many times this scenario repeated itself.
I feel like dogs do this too. We humans often don’t understand their body language and what they are trying to communicate so they too resort to yelling in order to get their message heard. How frustrating that must feel for the dog and the human. These big yelling behaviors may eventually get the attention of the human but may also create some indirect negative effects like embarrassment for the human.
My friends with newborns know not to sign up Aunty Tracy for babysitting help until after their kiddo is maybe two years old and has some other ways to communicate about their needs besides screaming or crying. I just haven’t spent a lot of time with infants to understand the nuances of their body language to get when they want to be fed, need to have a diaper change, etc so I confess I find caring for infants incredibly intimidating and stressful. On the other hand, put me in a room with a ‘terrible twos little’ and I’m happy to work with them to grow their communication skills, like using an “inside voice” in locations where that is appropriate and starting to articulate whether through words or signs what their needs are and how to get them met.
Some of the dogs I’ve worked with at the shelter remind me of some of the preschoolers who are just starting to expand their communication skills. Maybe these dogs lived in households where the humans did not observe their body signals and had limited knowledge of what the signals meant. Some of these dogs have a limited history of using their inside voice, using whispers to communicate and being understood, and having their needs met. On the other hand, they’ve had a lot of practice at screaming.
I love working with pet parents, watching their knowledge of their dog’s body language increase, and seeing the communication between the human and dog grow. It’s a surefire way to make me smile and have a feel-good moment. I also know I feel good when the person I’m trying to communicate with tries to listen. I imagine that a dog might have a positive reaction when their whispers are heard and they don’t need to resort to yelling. At the very least, it’s tiring to have to yell and sure consumes a lot of needless energy.
- Observe your dog and see how many behaviors you can objectively describe as they settle in for a siesta.
- Read What Do We Mean When We Say “Observe Your Pet”? to learn more about how all your senses come into play during your observations.
- Listen to Why you need to video your pets from the Enrichment for the Real World podcast.
- If you find there is a lot of ‘yelling’ happening in your household and you’d like help growing the whispers, we’re here to help.