Stress? What stress? A dog’s life is no longer the life of grind, an unhappy existence, full of problems or unfair treatment. In fact, if Pinterest and Youtube are the lenses through which we see the modern dog, life looks pretty good. Burberry coats in winter, surfboarding in summer, booties when the ground is rough and a calendar pre-booked with regular grooms. Freed from the rough toil of working life, doggy day care offers relief from the boredom of domesticity. Surely dogs’ have never had it so good?
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Yet throughout these changes dogs remain, well, dogs. Despite now smelling better than ever, there are still some things a dog must do, and when deprived of these outlets stress skyrockets. Until Google Translate irons out the bugs with their Speaking Dog update, dogs and owners are going to have to work together on the problem of communication.
Dogs deal with low level stress, generated by rushed transit past smell-tastic bushes, forced idling under café tables and the approach of unfamiliar people by employing calming behaviours. These include lip licking, shaking off, yawning, widening the eyes, scratching and stretching. These polite requests are very easy to miss, which is a shame, because when properly acknowledged and rewarded they function as the bedrock of civilized canine communication. Just as interpreting your partners nod when it is time to leave the party, acting on these signals promptly can prevent a whole lot of shouting, and encourage the continued employment of polite communication in the future. Nothing builds success like success.
But what happens when we miss these signals? When the urge to have another cappuccino overrides Buddy’s need for space? Just like in human communication, the volume and the intensity go up. Early acknowledgement of subtle communication builds trust, but failure leads to an escalation of demands. Lip licking becomes panting and drooling, a single shake develops into trembling, and sweaty paws are a dead giveaway.
Sometimes human communication customs override common sense. It can be hard to tell Tyler that Buddy needs a stress break when the signs are so subtle and Tyler’s half way through reliving The Block. Or when the nice lady with the bouncy Boxer is insisting her dog is friendly. There’s a tendency to wait and hope for the best that undoes so many of our best intentions. Maybe the waiter won’t walk so close to the table, maybe the Boxer’s owner will shorten his lead so that he can’t keep inching over, or maybe Tyler will finish his coffee and decide it’s time to go. The fact is, Buddy is relying on you to pick up on his cues and get him out of there before things get worse.
Are you listening?
Leadership is vital, and best initiated by you while Buddy can focus and respond to basic training. Waiting for escalation in behaviour, such as freezing, staring, growling, lunging or snapping reduces the amount of real estate in Buddy’s brain for listening. It also gnaws away at the trust between the two of you, trust that is vital for two species to safely and happily cohabit.
Forget the Burberry coats, surfboards and booties (but keep those grooming appointments). It’s the communication and resolution of stress that makes a dog’s life a happy one. Start early. Be observant. Intervene quickly. Buddy’s doing his best to communicate. Are you listening?
Yours Truly – Dr Rowena.