Through a Dog’s Eyes: The Basics of Putting a Dog’s Safety, Needs, and Feelings First is just one of the articles from Pet Care Pro Quarterly, IBPSA’s digital magazine for pet care services professionals. Read the current issue online here. AND smart pet care will be tackled in sessions at the upcoming IBPSA conference. Learn more and register at petcareconference.com.
By Laurie Wagner
At Doggie Fun & Fitness in Kingston, Massachusetts, home of the Quiet Dog Daycare Workshop, a therapeutic environment for doggie daycare has been created, one that puts a dog’s safety, needs, and feelings first. The goal is to make dogs comfortable, to try to see through their eyes, and think through their point of view.
We are the pace car
By getting into a dog’s head we can understand what makes him relaxed or stressed/excited. When we move fast and talk fast, we should expect them to get excited or anxious. And what happens when they’re excited or anxious? They bark, jump, cower, or lunge. But when we walk and talk at a calm, steady pace, it gives them a sense of comfort – it slows them down. Even if you’re not a car racing fan, you’re probably familiar with the role of a “pace car” to set the pace for the racers to begin the race and return control to the pace should hazardous conditions arise. We walk, talk, and move at the pace at which we want the dogs to move. We are the pace car.
Don’t be a “close talker”
Years ago, there was a “Seinfeld” episode with a character who was a very nice guy but, as Jerry put it, he was a “close talker”. He would stay unusually close to the other characters, invading their personal space, making them uncomfortable. We likewise need to be aware of whether we are making a dog comfortable or uncomfortable. When we are standing with our feet and shoulders pointed to a dog, looking him right in the eyes, it can make him uncomfortable. But when we point our feet and shoulders away from the dog and avert eye contact, it makes him feel at ease. Practice this yourself with a friend to see the situation through a dog’s eyes. Have your friend stand two arm’s lengths apart facing you while holding eye contact. Now, have her step in closer while still staring at you. How comfortable do you feel? And you know this person! We do this all the time to dogs that do not know us and wonder why they freak out. It’s a wonder they are as tolerant of us as they are. Next, sit on the floor so that your friend is much taller than you. Have her look down at you smiling. How comfortable do you feel? Have her put one hand over your head as she excitedly talks gibberish (what dogs hear when we speak human to them). How comfortable do you feel? Now, have her put two hands on your head, cupping your face, talking excitable gibberish, and bend over you. How comfortable do you feel? More dog bites to the face are preceded by bending over a dog than anything else. Starting to see it through the dog’s eyes?
Creating spatial pressure
Conversely, when a dog is acting wild and fresh we want them to be uncomfortable, so we should intentionally point our feet and shoulders at and look down on him. This is called spatial pressure. When applying spatial pressure, people often unwittingly hold their breath which indicates to the dog you are tense and not at ease. Be sure to keep breathing at all times. As a general rule, dogs will not trust us if we are not calm and relaxed. But we also must recognize when we are unintentionally making a dog uncomfortable and should turn away from the dog. If using spatial pressure to settle a dog down, be careful not to hold it so long that he becomes uncomfortable.
Above all else, be fair
Have you noticed a correlation between what we do and how dogs respond? When we hold eye contact or talk to a dog that is nervous, it makes them more nervous. When we do that to an excited dog it makes them more excited. And if we do that to an aggressive dog it makes them more aggressive. When we can’t control our own excitement level, we are being unfair when we expect a dog to be calm and not jump or bark. See the situation through the dog’s eyes and, above else all else, be fair.
Think about walking down the street with a dog and someone asks if she can say “hi” to your dog. Instead of automatically saying yes, take a look at the dog and “ask” the dog if he wants to greet this person. Think about it from the dog’s perspective. If he wants to greet someone he will go to them (while you hold the leash with a hand close to the collar to prevent from jumping). But, if he feels his space is intruded, especially when he is on a leash, he is more apt to feel trapped and nervous. He is more apt to bite. If the dog will not even approach the person, the chances of him actually wanting to be touched by this stranger is very unlikely. Think about it from his perspective. Do you like to be hugged by everybody, especially strangers? Chances are you do not. It is unfair to expect dogs to be touched by strangers when the majority of people do not want to be touched by strangers themselves.
It’s all in the approach
Granted, in the pet care industry many of us must approach dogs that may not want to be approached. And we must touch dogs that may not want to be touched. But we can be as polite and considerate as possible when doing so. By taking a nice deep breath to relax, pointing our feet away from the dogs, averting eye contact, and approaching by the side, dogs instantly feel more comfortable than if we walked straight towards them, looking at them, smiling and talking to them. By approaching from the side, stopping for a moment, and giving the dog a chance to process it all before leashing them, for example, you should see more trust in the dog than if you rush it.
More observant and respectful
Human behaviors such as walking and talking fast, being “close talkers”, bending over them, and speaking gibberish can make situations worse for dogs. The best thing we can do is be more observant. Take a moment to consider where the dog looks uncomfortable. Ask yourself, “how would I feel in this situation and what can I do differently to make the dog more comfortable?” The more we respect dogs as living creatures with needs, feelings, and their own communication skills, and the more we consider encounters and interactions through their eyes, the happier we’ll all be.
Laurie Wagner, is a Certified Dog Trainer Advanced & Pet Dog Trainer Instructor through the IACP, International Association of Canine Professionals, and Pet Dog Training Instructor. You can find out more about her shadow program or 2-day workshop, including her new visiting workshop by visiting http://quietdogdaycare.com.