9 Ways to Brush Up Your Canine Communication Skills
Learning to understand how to interact with dogs—and how they interact with each other—is like learning a new language. It takes time, patience—and practice, practice, practice! These tips focus on letting dogs be dogs, ensuring your safety and theirs, and becoming an expert observer.
First Train YOU!
Before you interact with dogs, hone your observational skills so you can properly and objectively label body language. For example, note that a dog’s eyes are squinty and his mouth is open rather than “This dog is happy.” Check out this handy SAFER® Glossary to help guide you.
Watch Dogs Play
It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Watching dogs play at the shelter, the dog park or in your home provides plenty of great fodder for studying canine behaviors and interactions. Record short videos and write down your observations to train your eyes to correctly identify what you see.
Give Them Roomies
Co-kenneling dogs can be wonderful enrichment for sociable animals and allows adopters to imagine what the dogs would look like cuddled up with their own pets. Ideal candidates for canine roommates are similar in age, size and play style. Just note, it’s important to separate dogs at feeding time.
Feed a Barking Dog
Yes, really! “A lot of trainers will tell you never to feed a barking dog, as that will reinforce their bad behavior,” says Trish McMillan Loehr, ASPCA Director of Applied Research and Behavior. But she counters, “Take the barkiest dog at the shelter and approach him over and over to toss him a treat; he will soon realize that the person approaching is not a threat – they’re bringing delicious snacks after all —and he will likely lose his motivation to bark. You may start seeing friendly body language instead!” View Loehr’s webinar The Effect of Human Body Language on Dog Behavior to see her demonstrate her approach.
Act Like a Human (since you are one!)
It’s an outdated misconception that humans should be dominant over dogs. “When we try to act like a dog by using muzzle grabs, alpha rolls and scruff shakes, we likely appear unpredictably aggressive through the dog’s eyes,” says Loehr. Dogs don’t see us as dogs, and are likely to respond better to quiet, non-threatening body language.
Multiply Your Safety
Walking a dog who’s potentially double trouble? Use two handlers, each holding one leash, to ensure more control.
If a loose dog comes charging, remember these key actions to make you appear less threatening:
- Stop all movement
- Avert eye contact
- Turn sideways
- Cross or lower arms
- One dog continually chases another with no role reversal
- Bared teeth, ears forward
- Head or tail remains high and stiff
- Body is stiff, not loose and wiggly
- Escape, avoidance or hiding behaviors
If you’re not sure whether both dogs are having fun, try leading the more excited dog away, and see if the other dog follows playfully.
Master Your Leash Skills
How to properly hold a leash, as seen in this video:
- Slip your thumb through the handle of the leash. If you are taking the dog for a sniffing walk on a long leash, or if you have a dog who doesn’t pull, close your hand—and this is all you’ll need to do.
- If you need the dog to be a little closer to you, loop the leash over your thumb, and then fold it a few times in your hand until you have the length of leash you need.
- For maximum control and safety, make sure the leash is coming out of the bottom of your hand (near your pinkie finger) when you are finished folding.
- If the dog is pulling hard, simply point one hip in the direction of the pull, with your legs shoulder-length apart. The dog will not get any give in the leash and will likely stop pulling.
*Don’t wrap your hand around the leash, which can cause injury to your hand and wrist
*These tips are part of the Canine Communications webinar series presented by the ASPCA’s Directors of Applied Research and Behavior Trish McMillan Loehr and Heather Mohan-Gibbons. All of the following webinar recordings are free and can earn you CEU credit from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers:
- Defensive Dog Handling: Leash Skills and Body Language
- Canine Communications: Dog Introductions
- The Effect of Human Body Language on Dog Behavior
- Canine Communication: Understanding Canine Body Language
Have any of these tips worked for you? Want to add some of your own? Please share your experience in the comment box!