It’s been a very calm day so far, girls were sleeping off their morning walks and I was cleaning. I decided to treat them to a little search game with empty egg containers, envelopes and oat meal boxes. I rolled a bit of their kibble in empty envelopes which I then placed in an empty egg box. And just for a bit more difficulty I put the egg containers in an empty oat meat box. They love this game 🙂
Today I took Salma and a 10 meters long line to the park. It used to be impossible to take Salma there even on a normal leash. At first we couldn’t even go to the industrial part of the park and now I can take her to the part for dogs where rabbits are at large and we manage. She still is mostly focused on searching for rabbits but she started doing normal dog things too, which is a good sign. She sniffs, marks, greets other dogs and today she even split two males that had a bit of an argument (one was trying to copulate with the other and he really didn’t like it). And this tells me that there is some part of her brain not focused on rabbits. And in the beginning this wasn’t the case, she looked stoned and she was not able to focus on anything else. We even had a close encounter with a rabbit and she recovered (also not possible before). She was 3 meters away from me, and she suddenly jumped in the bushes so I hoisted her back on the line, I am not naive to expect her to return when called in this situation, she is not ready for that and I will only spoil our recall by calling her. Once she was next to me I asked her to sit, which she while looking at the bushes. I know that she can sit and still be absent minded. So I asked her to target my hand. I used this exercise before. I put my fist next to her head but in a way that she needs to turn away from the stimuli (rabbit in this case) in order to touch it. This seems to do the trick. I had special sausage with me, so I can reward her in more difficult moments. And then we walked away. She was still a bit excited for a minute or so but managed to relax for remaining part of the walk. Again before this would be not possible and I would have to get out of the park as fast as possible dragging her behind.
It is a slow process and sometimes I feel like giving up. And I have given up few times, just avoiding places where there are rabbits (but there is not many of those where we live). But not slowly but steadily we are going in the right direction. I am realistic and I don’t expect her to ever be in this place of leash (a chance that I will not take with train trucks so close) and I am very happy with what we achieved so far. We went from not being able to walk in this park with Salma at all to walking her there on a long line.
Yes, be all those things if it will help your dog feel better. We are social animals and we are under pressure to fit in, to behave in socially acceptable ways. I say try to get over it. I know it’s difficult but it is worth it, especially if you have a fearful dog. Our dogs should be able to trust us and it is our responsibility to keep them safe. There is absolutely nothing wrong in telling people they should not touch your dog, or talk to eat (for some dogs that’s already too much), and it is not ok for another dog to bully yours even if their owner is trying to convince you that “He just want to play” and your dog has learn how to be tough.
I wanted to write about this topic today because I just had two situations when I behaved impolite because it was in Chili’s best interest. First when we went to the vet (she lost more weight recently and we dong know why 😦 ). Unfortunately, the vet was a man, normally I would only make an appointment with a female doctor but it had to be today. Chili stopped at the door for a second, which she doesn’t do with female doctors so before even saying “Good afternoon” or “Hi my name is Kat” I said “She is afraid of people so please DO NOT touch her unless it is necessary for the examination”. I could see that he was a bit taken aback by it and didn’t respond to my request but introduced himself. But I made my point and he did not touch her unless it was necessary, and that’s what I need for Chili. And in general this vet was better than many that I’ve met over the years, so we were lucky. White coat or not no one should manhandle your dog, and yes sometimes unpleasant procedures are necessary but it is important to make them as comfortable as possible for the dogs.
Second situation happened when we were walking home, and I felt worse about it. We were passing by our distant neighbour who has a young golden retriever. This dog is all made up out of excitement, and he is very social and playful but he is way too intense for Chili. He also drags his owner behind him on the leash and I was worried that if I try to explain in word why I don’t want him to come up to us his dog will already get to Chili. So I nodded at him and quickly passed by, he looked a bit confused and was still walking behind us for a while, but I kept on going. And I feel bad because he probably felt ostracised, and I think he is already struggling with his dog, he is sweet but really strong and doesn’t listen at all. But I had to choose Chili over social norms or expectations, and I will do it every time I need to.
This post has been inspired by a conversation on a dog forum http://www.psiesprawy.pl
One of the participants said that she sometimes has a problem with translating a theoretical knowledge about dog communication and body language into real life interactions. And this is particularly difficult when it comes to small details like slight change in ear positions.
I think that three elements are important to start learning about dog communication: learning about dog ethogram, filming and watching interactions between dogs in slow-motion and watching real life interactions. Before Chili joined our family I recorded most of Salma’s interactions with other dogs (i looked like a creep in the park following my dog with a camera 😉 ) Often it is easier to see a more unbiased picture on a video because we are not a part of the interaction when we are watching a film. It’s easier to notice more and leave emotions behind. Currently I am going through Alexa Capra’s and Daniele Robotti’s DVD’s on dog ethogram (http://www.skilladin.com/) and I try to focus on one behaviour for a while. Just like you would learn a new word. Patricia McConnell suggests in her book “On the other end of the leash” to focus on one behaviour for a week. For example where is the weight of the dog’s body in relation to the middle, or whether his lips are relaxed at the end of the mouth or tense and pulled in front. When you start to focus on only one body part it makes it a lot easier, otherwise sometimes there is just too much information to process. It’s simply like building a vocabulary in a new language. And observing interactions in real life adds the emotional feel and context. It’s not enough to simple list all the names of signals and behaviours we see, they transform into communication as a whole.
I did observe my dog’s lips for a week. And I did notice messages that I didn’t even suspect were there. Two days ago I had a situation that made me connect those exercises to every day life applications. I was in a park with Salma and Chili. Salma was on leash (there are too many rabbits in this park) and Chili was off, walking next to us. I took them for a walk together because I want to work on Chili’s interactions with other dogs when Salma is there. Without Salma Chili can ignore dogs she doesn’t want to meet, but it becomes too difficult when Salma is close by. I saw a female labrador approaching us from the front. Chili was standing still, her body straight and a bit still, her head above her shoulders and her tail low but not between legs. She didn’t have a hard look. What decided about the fact that I called her to me and put her on the leash was that her lips moved to the front of her mouth. I think she was still undecided how to react to the approaching dog but she was leaning into barking and displacing her. I took Salma and Chili a bit to a side of the road to have more space and give the labrador a chance to go around us. I didn’t pull Salma or Chili at any moment, I asked them to follow me. Labrador decided to approach us, she was friendly ( her body was relaxed, head on a level of her shoulders, soft gaze, slightly opened mouth and a tale moving just below her spine (in relaxed wavy way). Chili’s tale went up above her spine so I started talking to her with a soft calm voice, this usually can change her attitude toward a dog. And indeed she put her tale lower and lowered her head looking at the labrador but with a soft gaze. I didn’t interfere their meeting, Salma did make sure she will reach the other dog before Chili thought. I think she did this to help Chili and show her that there is no reason for concern. Dogs went through a greeting ritual and I called Chili away as soon as Salma decided to finish interactions. I absolutely trust Salma with other dogs, she really knows what she is doing so if she thought it was time to finish she was right. This interaction took around two minutes and while it lasted I didn’t focus on single body parts of my dogs but on the message they were sending. But knowing what for example pulled lips can mean helped to make a decision to call Chili on time before the situation became too difficult for her
On the picture Chili during communication classes just before she started barking at the other dog.
We just got back from our holiday in Italy where we were participating in Communication Classes at Gentle Team. I was extremely excited to spend 7 days filled with observing dog behaviour and it was great to meet old friends and see how my dogs have changed within the last year.
Since we got back I’m continuously thinking about the things I’ve learned and how much more there is to know about dog communication. I will slowly try to write as much as possible about our holiday but it will take some time, I have over 500 pictures of interactions and loads of films to go through. And of course everyday life to take care of.
A little sneak peak:
I like mutts, village dogs, mongrels whatever you call all those dogs that don’t have clear heritage. And I don’t like when people ask me what are my dogs mixed withy their parents (mothers I know for sure) were not breed dogs and my dogs are not mixed breed dogs. They are…well just dogs and that’s what I love about them. Just to be clear before I go further: I don’t have any problem with breed dogs (as long as they are not deformed).
I’m not alone in my appreciation of mutts as Dutch people are getting more and more dogs from Spain, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and so forth. I meet those dogs all over Amsterdam and they all have a lot in common. They all have kind of a similar look and you can immediately recognize them. They also act a bit more skittish, especially in the beginning. On the other hand it keeps on amazing me how fast those dogs (often picked up straight from a street) adjust to their new lives.
Last Friday I took care of a small 6 months old female dog from Ibiza. She was adopted 2,5 months ago and she is just a little firecracker. We traveled by tram, went to a park, walked through a city center, went to a cafe and she was fine with all of that. She goes with her owner to work and travels in a little bike basket and she is crazy about other dogs. She just is so adjusted to a life of a city dog.
Another dog I recently met (this week) is a 8 month old female from Romania. She was a dog picked up from a street and adopted when she was on a death row (she had two weeks left). I couldn’t believe that she is here for only 8 weeks. She has a good bond with her owner, she does great with dogs and the city. She occasionally barks at men but I wouldn’t be surprised if that goes away by itself and she is ignored then and she just stops and continues with her activities. According to her owner in the beginning she was too scared to even walk into the park and then one day it just changed.
I’m fascinated by the adaptivity of those dogs (and dogs in general as a species). I think that another factor that plays a very important role are the owners. It is very common in Amsterdam to spend a lot of time with your dog. You can take him with you almost everywhere including pharmacy, bank or some grocery stores. And in most cafe’s I don’t even ask if dogs are allowed because it they are not they would be a sign. So dogs are just a natural part of life in this city, and it makes it really easy to socialize them with pretty much everything.
On the first picture Salma with Laika from Spain and on the second Chili with India from Romania