How Are Your Dogwatching Skills?
“Many dogs can understand almost every word humans’ say, while humans seldom learn to recognize more than half a dozen barks, if that. And barks are only a small part of the dog language. A wagging tail can mean so many things. Humans know that it means a dog is pleased, but not what a dog is saying about his pleasedness”
—Dodie Smith, 101 Dalmatians
Do you really know what your dog needs on a daily basis, not just the walk and food but the option to chew the grass, the choice to greet some dogs and avoid others, the reassurance that it's OK to make some choices and that we will wait while they do that. We humans are very good at pushing on through life regardless, but when we live with dogs, that act of pushing on in our wake - that might be tougher on them than we think.
So how can we be sure their lives are meeting their needs? Here's how...
Watch Them With Care
Enlightened observation is the act of observing from a point of neutrality and education. When we practice observing in this way, we avoid projecting our own experiences and beliefs onto dogs. The human mind is an excellent projector, think of a time you have argued with a partner or family member in the past. I bet you looked at them and assumed that you knew what they were thinking and how they felt – which fuelled your fire of annoyance. Arguments are usually based on a lack of excellent communication and assumptions, on projection as opposed to true understanding.
Don't Assume You Know What They Want
Assuming leads to projection.
Projection leads to misinformation, which in the case of dogs means that we assume how they feel – rather than giving them the chance to tell us in the best way they can. The more neutral we can be when we observe dogs and the more education we have, the best chance they have of showing us how they are feeling. Assumptions, projections and the natural desire to rush in and interact with a dog, blinds us to their language and communications. Enlightened observation offers space, and postpones action – giving the dog a chance to tell us what he needs.
Let's let the dog tell us how they feel! What hints is this dog giving you right now?
Observe Them - And Yourself
Observe yourself for a while, when out with your dog or interacting with a dog you meet. Do you dive in and touch or interact? Or do you wait for a few seconds, asking yourself what the dog in front of you is trying to say?
If you dive in, don’t be too hard on yourself, it’s our nature, we are descended from apes and our ancestors are grabbers and doers. The important thing to remember though is that dogs are descended from wolves and they are hesitant observers – which is where our communication styles clash. Dogs generally don’t want to be touched, particularly not by strangers, as it’s not really in their nature. A life of being touched without giving permission must be pretty tough too, dogs are tolerant animals, which is another reason why they truly are man’s best friend.
When you become aware of being a doer it’s easier to change your own behaviour and create a little space in your mind. That space can then be filled with observation, respect and proper communication.
Does this dog want this hug? Would you like to be held and hugged that way without giving your permission? What do you think his facial expression is saying here?
How about this puppy, how does he look to you?
Does this dog look happy posed this way? Is it fair to pose a dog like this? What do you think?
What about this dog, how relaxed do you think he looks? Would he have chosen this?
There are many types of canine education in the world today. Some are lagging behind and still think dogs are all aspiring alpha wolves, others believe that dogs are fair game to be punished and pronged whilst the rest of us believe in kindness. One thing we can all learn though, is dog language and enlightened communication. Because let’s face it – nobody really knows how a dog feels, apart from that dog. It’s almost all guesswork, but at least when we practice enlightened observation, we can make an educated guess.
A few generations ago canine education had little formal stance in the world. As humans we claimed expert status quickly and taught each other based on our opinions, what our dogs were thinking and feeling. Some still do that – which is a bit cringeworthy – but most people who teach about dogs now, tend to follow the science. Thankfully that science is fabulous and growing all the time. It has real heart and dogs are being studied for who they are, so projection is minimised, whilst we all learn about the dog’s needs – directly from that dog.
Would these two dogs choose to be held back by a rope or chain when they meet a friend. Is it even fair to put them in this position, what do you think?
Do they all look happy and comfortable to you?
Back to this guy, is he having fun in your opinion?
Empathy is something we often see lacking from people towards the dogs they live with and even love. How often do you see them pulled along the park with a shackle around their throat when they are so desperate to say hi to other dogs in the area. I see it often enough for it to keep me awake at night.
Taking a moment or two to recognise that our dogs are doing something important to them, or a direction on a walk is important to them is empathy. Taking time to know whether they are ready to move on or giving pause is respectful to them and their natural needs. Realising that some dogs like some things and some dogs like different things is important. But most importantly is having the presence of mind, patience and empathy to know what exactly it is that our dogs need and take some time just being with them while they fulfil that need - that's our responsibility. That's one of our jobs as dog guardians, that makes us better people.
If you want to learn more about being an excellent dog guardian, check out my online course on Good Guardianship.