Did the dog get up on the wrong side of the bed?

Pedadoggy has been quiet this last week as I have been sick, cursed with a winter weather lurgy. All the sitting around and feeling sick reminded me of a story that took place in our house one morning some time ago before I’d studied dog behaviour and training.

“Hello Mopey Dog,” The Husband says to The Dog. “Are you cross today?”.

I look up from the couch. The Husband is crouched next to the dog’s bed, giving him a scratch in his fall-time favourite place – under his chin. Where usually Zac’s tail would be thumping its enthusiastic morning greeting, it twitches twice then lies still.

His eyes slowly track The Husband as he heads to the kitchen to put on the kettle, after which the littlebrown creature settles back down to sleep. Only the mention of the word “ball” gets him bouncing up and down and ready for some chasing action.

Later that morning Zac refuses to look at his breakfast and I find myself telling him that there are many other dogs in the world who would give both of their front fangs for a meal of imported, New Zealand green-lipped mussels and venison.

It’s only when I almost go sliding through a puddle of vomit at the front door that I realise I’ve missed some pretty obvious signs. Zac wasn’t cross. He wasn’t upset at something we’d said or done, or hadn’t done. He wasn’t feeling well. That was all.

It reminded me how easily we are tempted to overlay human emotion onto our dogs. How often do you hear people calling their dogs “stubborn” or “lazy” or “disobedient”?

The fancy word for this is ‘anthropomorphise’ – attributing human features to something. But what signs are we misinterpreting? Which ones are we missing entirely?

Dog body language is complex and much has been written on it. Us mere humans easily miss the cues dogs give, especially the more fleeting and subtle ones such as a flick away of the eyes or a quick lip lick when they are nervous. We incorrectly attribute how we would be feeling on their behaviours, or rather the ones we choose to notice.

Zac remains waggingly healthy (and I’m getting there) but the experience reminded me that we need to read between the lines, notice the signs and put our own humanity aside when interpreting our dogs’ more subtle non-verbal communication. And no, the dog did not get up on the wrong side of the bed.

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Beware the play time parasites

Symbiotic play is about give and take. It’s about revving up and revving down. And too many dog owners don’t know how to look for the signs that their dog is distressed and needs them to step in-between to ratchet down the level of play or give their dog a break.

Symbiotic play is about give and take. It’s about revving up and revving down. And too many dog owners don’t know how to look for the signs that their dog is distressed and needs them to step in-between to ratchet down the level of play or give their dog a break.

Bulling, especially at schools, has received a lot of attention in recent times as we try to eliminate poor behavior and protect children from getting hurt.

But do we know how to recognise the signs when our dog is getting bullied? Often we don’t because dog play may appear to be fair and equitable, when it isn’t. Dogs naturally run around when playing with each other and just because there isn’t fur flying or we can’t hear growling does it mean that everyone is having a good time.

Consider this scenario. It’s a sunny afternoon and a couple of owners have brought their dogs down to the off-leash park. A young Kelpie and Labrador retriever are playing together, or so it seems at first glance. The Kelpie doing what it does best, tries to round up the Lab as if it were still a working dog on a sheep farm. At first the Lab give a great play bow – the universal invitation to play in dog language – crouched down on his front legs, backside in the air with the tail wagging slowly from side-to-side.

As the Kelpie makes its running approach, aimed like an arrow at the Lab, the Lab runs away in that goofy run from side-to-side that dogs do when they are pretending to be chased. The Lab then decides it’s time to turn the tables on the Kelpie, turning around to give chase. But the Kelpie will have none of it, perhaps even giving the Lab little nips to keep it in check as its fore bearers on the farm would have done with their wooly charges.

What happens next is critical as not all play is equal. If the Lab keeps running away without being given any reprieve over and over, it is being bullied. I have seen this happen over and over again in dog parks all around Sydney. The owners stand sipping their coffees, looking at their mobile screens or talking to each other about the weekend’s footy result.What I call symbiotic play is about give and take. It’s about revving up and revving down. And too many dog owners don’t know how to look for the signs that their dog is distressed and needs them to step in-between to ratchet down the level of play or give their dog a break.

So what does symbiotic play look like? It’s about mostly equal parts chasing and running away. It’s about dogs giving each other a ‘time out’, even if it’s just for a few seconds, if one dog shows signs of being harassed. Then letting the chased party resume the play, not the other way around.

The problem is that when in that highly excitable stage, some animals forget their manners and just don’t read the signs in their playmates. Or they have not learnt to moderate their play. Puppy schools that let dogs free play with no moderation by the trainer is one of the causes of this, as well as owners who let their dogs play with others without any supervision or management.

This leads to what I call parasitic play. All chase from one or more parties with no give, no time outs allowed for the one being chased or sniffed or followed or whatever. I’ve seen dogs back up between their human’s legs for protection, the dog trying to make frequent eye contact, with the human simply stepping away to avoid spilling a drop of their precious coffee – ignoring the obvious signs that their dog is requiring assistance.

As the thinking party in the companion animal relationship, the human owner can make a significant difference. Simply even separating the dogs for a few seconds, rewarding the calm with a food treat and seeing if your dog then goes back for another round of chase-my-tail will make for a happier, confident and less fearful dog (one who may later lash out with a growl or a bite in self defense if this level of fear is allowed to escalate). Nobody likes being bullied and neither do dogs.

So what are the signs your dog is experiencing distress? There are some quite obvious signs you can look out for:

  • The dog is constantly running away with no opportunity to become the chaser
  • The dog runs under a chair, under your legs, under a tree and backs up against it in an attempt to find a physical shelter from their playmate who has turned aggressor
  • Making eye contact with you within this context of other signs, signaling for help
  • Typical fear or stress-related body postures such as tail tucked between the legs, lip locking, ears flat or back and eyes wide open.
  • If the dog does get a chance for a time out it may start sniffing the ground which is one of the ways they diffuse stress.

If your dog is being bullied, speak up calmly to other owners and ask them to help you help your dog – making them aware at the same time what good manners at play time look like.

Similarly, watch for your dog being the bully by observing how the other dogs are interacting and if necessary, break up the play until the other dog shows signs of wanting to resume the chase, or not. This is a good opportunity to ask your pup for a sit and give them a treat to distract from the play.

If necessary – whether the victim or the bully – remove your dog from the environment as keeping it there longer is not going to be beneficial for anyone involved. Walk away if you have to.

I wish I had somebody to speak up for me when I was being bullied at primary school for wearing glasses. So I’m sure your dog will appreciate you for it.

Bark bark, all the way to the park

This is my doggy-themed calendar’s July message: “Dogs feel very strongly that they should always go with you in the car, in case the need should arise for them to bark violently in your ear” (by Dave Barry). Quirky pic, funny quote. Until it’s happening to you.

While barking is a natural behavior for dogs and for most a way to express their excitement when going out to somewhere exciting or one of the places they love best (or frustration that they’re not there yet!), it’s not just annoying but also painful and dangerous to have a baying, howling, yapping, barking or squealing dog in your ear.

Most dogs are reportedly able to bark at 100 Decibels, with most countries’ national recommended safety standards for preventing hearing loss being limiting exposure to noises over 85 Decibels. Driving with continuous barking from a furry passenger in an enclosed space is certainly not recommended.

Incidentally, an Aussie dog holds the Guinness World Record for the loudest bark. Charlie, a Golden Retriever, earned the title in 2013 by registering an incredible 113.1 decibels, with his woof apparently producing the same noise output as a loud rock concert. It was reported by his owners that he thankfully only barks on command.

Pedadoggy’s top tips for stopping dogs barking in the car:*

  • Desensitise the entire car trip experience and condition (rewire) the dog for calm. If the excitement or fear starts when you pick up the car keys, pick them up a few times a day for a few days without going anywhere and reward the dog for other calm behavior such as sitting. Same goes for the leash or whatever is the signal that it’s park time. Eventually build up to getting in the car and not going anywhere, rewarding for calm. Then progressing to travelling even just a few metres. This will also be a lot easier if you offer the dog a chew or yummily stuffed Kong while they are in the car to distract them.
  • If you can teach your dog to bark on command then you can teach them to shush or be quiet on command too. Once the dog has mastered this ‘trick’, you can progress to practicing it in the car without going anywhere, then graduating to when you are traveling, with the help of a human training partner in the back seat.

Remember before heading off to secure the dog in the car with either a harness clipped into an anchor point, or by putting the dog in a crate. In NSW, road safety legislation stipulates that motorists must not drive a vehicle with an animal on their lap or preventing them from having proper control of the car – a penalty of three demerit points and a fine of $338, rising to $422 if caught in a school zone. Also, if an animal is injured as a result of being unrestrained, owners also face up to six months’ jail and fines of up to $5500 under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

Do you have a car barker? What has helped you ?

* Ones that don’t use citronella or shock collars, shouting at the dog or any other punishing training techniques or tools.