Barking – Don’t Gag The Dog!
I found myself wincing at a small child shouting and zooming in a shop the other day. I almost turned to the kid’s mom and said “my dogs are the same” but it somehow didn’t seem appropriate.
It did get me thinking about expression though. Most dogs bark, they bark a lot (and let’s face it, most kids shout a lot too). It’s easy to wince and move away from the noise – and because we are a bit judgy as a species assume something about the source of it.
However - and here’s my lightbulb moment – noise is expression and every single living creature is fully entitled to express themselves.
Every dog is an individual. They have a past of their own, DNA unique to them and specific experiences trigger certain feelings. A new theme in our house is the two older terriers who encourage themselves to have a howling festival. They throw their heads in the air and howl like their ancestors. It’s almost like one says, “are you ready” the other catches his eye and off they go. I’m yet to work out what they are expressing but they have their reasons. Currently us humans just leave the room - to preserve our hearing.
Expression means they have a feeling and unless they do something with it, that feeling stays inside. It becomes stuck and can turn into stress or affect their biology in some other way. For example, the dog who barks because she’s worried you are leaving the house is expressing that stress response into the air around her. The dog barking at cars, is scared of the cars and releasing his stress response into the environment. When he’s happy and chuntering, the dog is expressing his good energy, in a vocal barrage of “isn’t life great”.
Sometimes expression can become inappropriate. That doesn’t mean we should take away the opportunity for our dogs to express how they feel though - it means we should provide another outlet. Curbed expression leads to suppression and that’s not healthy or fair.
It’s science that we are as much energy as biology. In Canine Flow we learn that dogs need to express because of an energy surge. In biology we learn it is linked to cortisol and adrenaline. A surge can be caused by anything. Stress, happiness, greeting or a pending goodbye can cause a response in the body. Whether you choose to see that response as energy or the nervous system doesn’t really matter, the important thing is that the dog gets a chance to express it.
We so often see people asking for advice to stop their dog barking, we even see trainers who are happy to gag with force or a threat. The dog barks, it’s unpleasant to the ears so someone comes along and shuts the dog up. BUT that ability to express is stuck inside now and it will affect the dog’s health and wellbeing. The alternative ending is that stopping one type of expression ensures it will directly become another. For example, the dog who is barking, if told to be quiet, will start eating grass – because she needs to do something and quickly. Or the dog is told to stop growling (and he does) still has to express himself because the internal feeling hasn’t changed - so he might just go ahead and bite.
Fortunately, there are also many excellent teachers who see the dog’s need to express, then help them to do it, but in a way more acceptable to their home and those they share it with. Or they see that the dog is expressing fear or stress, so deal with their ability to cope and that particular stress is no longer present.
Our role as guardians is to facilitate an environment where the dog feels safe, is able to be themselves and behave as naturally as possible, in a harmonious life where everyone benefits, no-one suffers (including ourselves) and at the centre of that is communication. Expression is fundamental communication – and if we watch carefully we can learn a great deal about our dogs, simply by observing how and when they express themselves. Important "Thank Yous" because the world is full of special teachers.....
Thanks to Caroline Griffith for Canine Flow and Rachel Windsor-Knott for teaching me that life is a lesson to embrace every step of the way.
Mostly - thanks to my dogs, for you are the experts!