body language

Our dogs are always watching


As I started to turn the corner, I looked down to notice Luke watching my feet. I’d noticed for about a week that he was always looking at the ground when I was up and moving. I was pretty sure about what he was doing so I tried it out. I turned my foot to the left and he followed left; I turned my right foot and he followed that. Yep, he was watching my feet. He was my first very obvious foot watcher and the dog who taught me the most out of all of my dogs. Luke was a very clear watcher; my other dogs, like most are much more subtle about their watching, but they are watching non the less.

Canines communicate predominantly with body language. The impact that we have on our dogs just utilizing body language alone is immense. Each and every movement we make impacts our dogs. From guidance movements (as far as where we are going and reaction movements). They are always watching, learning and following.

It is fascinating to see how much our dogs watch us. Not only do they use our movements as a “whats up” signal but also use it to learn. Learning comes in many forms and for dogs they learn intensely from body language. From the moment we get up in the morning to the minute we turn out the light and drift off; they are constantly watching us.

Because our body language is so influential with regards to our dogs; I will be holding a webinar on human body language and how it impacts our canines. Stay tuned for more info, it promises to be fascinating and informative.

Living with dogs

Elsa and Luna coexist. It is important to understand their communications.

Elsa and Luna coexist. It is important to understand their communications.

I am constantly asked what I do. My licence plate says Justdogs so when people see it or I give them my email address they always ask “what do you do with dogs?” My typical answer is “I’m a dog trainer,” but if they really want to chat about dogs then I elaborate to photographer, writer, blogger, webinar creator, baker for dogs, temperament testing, online courses…etc. etc. But what I really do is “life with dogs.”

My Just dogs with Sherri mission statement is:

To bring humans and canines into a symbiotic relationship.  Where each thrive with the presence of the other.  Alone they are just man and just dog; together they complete the perfection of a "canine lifestyle."

Life with dogs should be amazing but it isn’t always. The relationship can take a beating when we don’t understand one another. Humans understanding dogs is the first step to creating an amazing connection. When we understand our dogs; then they will be able to understand us.

Let’s face it, humans often forget that dogs are not furry humans. Sadly many of the biggest issues when living with dogs is the fact that we treat them like humans. We put human emotions on our dogs and assume that they communicate as we do. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Dogs are dogs and to think of them as furry humans is a disservice to them. In many ways dogs are far superior than us; especially in the communication department. But if we don’t now how they communicate then we don’t “get them.” So many people have no idea what their dog is saying or trying to communicate. Humans often misread information given by their dog and there in lies the biggest issue.

Dogs have a lot to say. It’s funny because just the other day as my husband and I were walking Elsa and one of our Grand-dogs, I thought about the fact that our dogs never say anything. My husband and I were chatting away as we walked, Elsa and Luna said nothing. That is, they didn’t say any words but they were constantly communicating. Our dogs often have a great deal more to say than we do, but are we listening? Watching?

Understanding how our dogs communicate is all about watching. They are master body language communicators. But much of their communications go unnoticed because they are so tiny and fleeting that we miss them. I often hear from guardians that they have no idea what happened when there dog seems to have a behavior issue. This can be because we regularly miss what they are saying. Some folks haven’t a clue what their dog is saying ever.

Living with dogs can and should be amazing. But, living with dogs can be stressful, frustrating and regretful. If we don’t take the time to learn about the dog or dogs that we are living with, then there will be fallout. Finding out how your dog communicates, understands and learns will lead to a much better relationship, bottom line.

We expect so much from our dogs. Sadly many of us don’t really understand how dogs work. Many people tell me “I’ve lived with dogs all my life,” meaning that they know dogs. But if you’ve never taken the time to really learn about canine communication; it doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived with them. You simply may not have been understanding them the entire time.

Admittedly I don’t know much about cats. I don’t live with cats so it doesn’t really matter that I don’t “get them.” If I was interested in them then I might do some research; but I’m not a big cat person so I stick to dogs. I believe if you are going to live with an animal; you should know as much as you can about them.

Our biggest problem is us. We humans tend to think like humans and put those thoughts on other animals. It is the easiest for us to not have to learn about other animals but it is most definitely not the best. Truly learning about the animals that we live with means putting our human ways aside for a while. If we are going to have dogs in our homes with us; then we should learn about them and how they work, right?

I love dogs, they are amazing creatures. There is nothing like a canine/human connection at it’s bet.

Reading dog body language

Not the puppy from today but Elsa clearly stating how much she loves to play with Yogi and as a puppy.  (Taken a couple of years ago)

Not the puppy from today but Elsa clearly stating how much she loves to play with Yogi and as a puppy.  (Taken a couple of years ago)

We were out as the sun came up this morning.  Hearing about our impending heat today, Elsa and I head out to the park early, before the heat hit.   Like myself, Elsa needs to workout strenuously daily; so I love when I can get her power run in before the day starts.  Today's run was a quiet one, as we were out before most others, nice.  

As we were ending our walk we ran into a woman and her 5 1/2 month old yellow Labrador.  From far away I could see his rambunctiousness and that he was quite a handful for his guardian.  Elsa watch carefully and I watched her intently.  As we got closer I could see the question coming from the human on the end of the puppy's leash.  

"Can he meet her?" the woman asked.  I'd been monitoring Elsa's body language well before they were upon us.  Elsa LOVES puppies.  But, she is very wary of adult dogs because she has been attacked several times.  So...I read very carefully before meeting any other dogs face to face.  I go with what Elsa tells me, and if it is another adult dog we typically get space and keep on moving.  But this morning she told me that she was interested in this little man.  

Even though the youngster was exhibiting direct eye contact and straining at his leash to meet her; Elsa knew that he was non threatening.  Elsa is probably one of the best readers that I have ever met.  She also knows who she wants to meet and this one was someone who she wanted to meet.  Her tail was high but not all the way up; and wagging slowly in an excited by not overly excited manner.  She reached out to get a sniff and there was no snorting.  Snorting is her stress signal that I listen carefully for. 

I asked how old he was before allowing a greeting.  He was 5 1/2 months old and even as large as he was, Elsa knew this before I did.  I let Elsa sniff him as he strained at the end of his leash.  I HATE on leash greetings.  Even the friendliest dog greeting can go wrong if they become tangled.  After their first sniff I unhooked Elsa.   Watching like a hawk (as I always do) Elsa's body language went from interested, happy and a little tense while on leash; to instantly no worries and calmly excited off leash.  

The release of tension (unhooking the leash) gave her the freedom to move about, away or closer as she felt the need.  Leashes can interfere with body language drastically.  Of course there are leash laws and most of the time our dogs MUST be on leash.  But it really is amazing to witness the huge change in body language on and off leash.  

Even though Elsa had clearly shown me that she wanted to meet the young man this morning; she was much more relaxed off leash while interacting with him.  She truly is amazing with puppies.  So many adult dogs are not big puppy fans; they don't want to put up with their antics.  But not Elsa, she much prefers puppies over adult dogs.

It always amazes me what she allows puppies to get away with.  Even puppies that she has never met before are allowed to push the boundaries that an adult would NEVER be allowed.  The puppy bounded around, jumping on her and pawing her with his huge feet.  I thought that she might give him a bit of a schooling on etiquette but she just enjoyed his naughtiness.  Now... had this boy been her little brother; he'd would have had a great deal of education at 5 1/2 months of agee.  Elsa is an amazing teacher with the patience of a saint.    

Elsa and Forest (little mans name) had a short romp before I stated that we were going to continue our walk.   "Quit while you're ahead," one of my motto's in life.  They had had a great interaction, so I chose to end it and keep moving along.  Elsa was happy, Forest was happy and both guardians were happy.  I hope to meet Forest and his guardian in the park again; Elsa really enjoyed his crazy and energetic puppy antics.  

Dogs are SOOOOOO much more versed in communication than we humans are.  We can go on and on with our words without saying anything.  But dogs, they speak volumes with their body alone.  Paying attention to that and knowing your dog is so important when living with dogs.  Canine body language is fascinating and telling.  

Do you know what your dog is saying? 



Don't even try to get past the watcher

She's sharp, she's on the ball and she doesn't miss a thing, so don't even try.  Elsa is always watching and aware.  The other day we were walking along a strip mall area that we frequent.  It is a great place to walk for seeing folks, grocery carts, screaming kids etc etc.  We undoubtedly will run into someone who wants to touch or talk to Elsa which she ADORES.  Elsa LOVES people, I mean crazy googly loves people.  So when someone stops to talk to her; they get the full-on Elsa treatment which is good for anyone's ego.  

So we were wandering along, Elsa was sniffing everything that there was to sniff between working on some obedience, when a truck slowed beside us.  We were on the sidewalk area which is right beside where cars can drive.  It also makes a great place to work on "car chasing" issues or creating non issues. I took Elsa to the same place when she was young so she has no car chasing issues.  But, this truck had slowed and the guy inside was looking at Elsa.  

She looked and then took a double take.  "Why was he staring at her?" was her reaction.  She could not function, he was staring at her, she was staring at him.  She got a bit confused; she knows what a slowing vehicle means but didn't know the guy inside.  Elsa loves people but not when they do weird things.  She absolutely had to figure it out before she could continue.  

The guy continued staring.  I could see that he was interested in Elsa and what we were doing.  I'd been working on her "right," behavior which is like a finish in obedience but on the right side.  She was doing great until this guy showed up.  Funny how people don't "get" dog behavior.  If he did "get" it he would have seen that he was disturbing her.  

After looking at him a couple of times myself, he got the message and moved along.  It was a good distraction for her but one that she had a hard time with.  Elsa knows that when cars slow down beside us that we are usually going to talk to someone in the car.  This was confusing to her as he just slowed down enough to stare but was still driving along side us.   

Sometimes one thing can really give you a clear visual on your dog and who they are.  This one incident summed Elsa up to a T.  Elsa is the ever intense watcher.  She does not miss a thing and because of this; she can be hard to move.  Once she locks onto something that she needs to figure out; she needs to figure it out.   Of course now that she has experienced a slow driving gawker, she will be able to deal with the next one.  I guess we've never dealt with a slow driving gawker who just stared before.  :)   Most other slow driving gawkers have actually stopped to talk which Elsa is accustom to.  She did not like the non talking one.  

Elsa is a great reader of body language; perhaps she didn't like that she couldn't read his in his slow moving truck.  As much as she ADORES people; she has a clear understanding of who we give affection to.  We do not give the people who walk by not saying anything, the time of day.  If someone says "hi" to only me we keep moving.  Even if we stop to talk but the human only talks to me, then Elsa minds her own business.  But if they say hi to Elsa or reach a hand out, it's full-on Elsa time.  

Don't even try, you won't get past the watcher.  

Inferior beings

Good Monday morning.  I'm sure that you all noticed that I've been absent?  I was busy with wedding festivities and family visiting over the last couple of weeks.  But now it's back to life as usual. 

First let me tell you all that Elsa is doing well physically after her attack.  I am following up further on the attack and details and it waits to be seen if she will suffer from emotional fallout; I'm thinking most likely.

This brings me to today's topic of discussion, reading body language.  Dogs are amazing at reading body language; of course there are levels of understanding but most are experts.  There are some who can read it but ignore much of the meaning and then there are a few who just don't get it.  As for humans reading body language?  We are HORRIBLE.  Take for instance the act of stepping off of a path or reining a dog in; this should tell the passers by that we do not want to interact.  But even when we give off all of the clear "do not come near me" signs; the humans still continue to approach.

There are those who walk their dogs on the end of an extended extension leash; the ones who take up a 10-15 foot circle around them.  Do they rein in their dog as others approach?  Nope.  You not only have to step off of the path; having to deal with their lack of space consideration but also their dog leaping at the end of the leash.   When you move away they often throw the "what's wrong with you?" look.  Let's face it, most humans have lost their ability to read body language.  When we send clear signals that are completely ignored, it forces us to use words.  The use of body language can completely remove the need to "get into it."  Remove the interaction before hand and a problem never arises.  But we just don't get it.

As an intense watcher of canine body language; I am also a human body language watcher.  It comes with the territory and is fascinating.  I have begun to read people as much as dogs by watching.  It truly is amazing to see how much we can read just by really watching.  But many humans have thrown the whole body language thing out the window.  They don't watch their dog and they definitely don't watch other humans.  They rely solely on words, ignoring clear signals given. 

Body language is a bits and pieces act.  You can look at the big picture or dissect it to pieces.  It is in these pieces that you will find the information.  Small cues that give off so much information.  Humans are very easy to read; even given the fact that we can lie and do so.  If you watch carefully you can even see the truth and a lie via body language.  Humans can try to hide but much of who we are, is held within our movements.  Movements of extremities, eyes and posture. 

If we all focused on better communications there would be far less issues to deal with after the fact. 

Words vs. body language

"I told her no" he said walking away with his dog continually jumping on him.  "But, that is not what you said with your face or body," I told him.  "She only sees action right now, she is not listening to your words," I explained as I have done so many times before.  Our dogs watch us far more than they listen to us.  Just the other day I was outside with Luke and Elsa when Miss Elsa lifted her leg and almost peed on Luke.  Yep, she is a marker and on this day she could not wait for him to finish before marking over his pee.  I yelled as she lifted her leg which stopped her short of hitting him on the leg.  I was postured adding to the disapproval in my voice which had great effect.  She very quickly ran over and sat in front of me with just the very tip of her tail wagging from under her rear end.  She understood very clearly that it is not okay to pee on Luke.  Honestly. 

What you say and what you do are two completely separate things.  You can say one thing but if you do not follow up with actions your words may be lost.  Of course, this is with regards to feedback and not well trained verbal cues.  It also depends on the individual dog, your relationship and training.  If you want to be very clear you will make good use of your body as well as your voice when trying to get a message across to your dogs.  You might say "stop, stop, stop, STOP," but it is not until you get up or stand tall that they listen.  Young dogs are often the culprit of this "I can't hear you," scenario.  They may be at the push stage and giving things a try.  But add some body language in with your vocal feedback and you will then be speaking dog. 

Using your body, facial expression and vocal or verbal are all options.  You can use only body language on all it's own to deliver a message.  Eye contact works well on it's own with a dog who is use to looking for it.  But vocal or verbal does not always work on it's own.  If you have a well trained dog who knows when you speak that you mean business then yes it will work wonderfully.  But if you have a young dog or a dog who is never given feedback or expected to follow orders at all then you may have a difficult time. 

Elsa is a body language dog, she is constantly watching and perfecting it.  If she is mooching at the table for scraps, I simply have to freeze and look at her to send her flying away from the table.  If I stare at her she gets very uncomfortable as she tries to figure out what she is doing wrong.  For these type of dogs it does not take a lot to get a message across.  Others may need more practice for their reading skills and some need new lessons altogether.  Most dogs come to us with a clear understanding of body language; it is important to keep it up so that they don't lose it.  It is also the easiest way to communicate with them. 

Watching a fine tuned canine/human team work together is amazing.  That doesn't mean that they have to be doing agility, flyball or other sport.  It can be simply how they interact on a day to day basis.  Anyone can have it, with just a bit of work.  But that work will pay off tenfold. 

Getting cranky

                                      Off to visit people and dogs; Luke heads down the beach in CT.  Mr. Social.
                                              This image makes me smile; I remember it like it was yesterday. 

We were heading to the path; the small path that allows you no leeway for distance.  Just as we approach Luke decides to take a dump, nice.  Trying to pick it up in amongst the bushes, I did my best.  The poop bag was too messy to try to tie; you know those, I'm sure you've all had them.  So I had Elsa and Luke in one hand and the undesirable untied bag in the other.  I saw them coming, they were headed down the same path that we were on.  I also saw one of the little dogs lower his head and stare; great and I have my hands full.  I should have just dropped the bag and picked it up later but I didn't think about doing that at the moment.  I knew what was coming and it did; Luke lunged and tried his best to sound like a Grizzle bear. 

If I had not had a handful of poop that was looming to come out and touch me; I would have put Luke calmly on the other side of me.  But I didn't so he did a big bluster.  This is common for Luke and for many dogs.  Luke has slight leash aggression, it doesn't always happen but if he is feeling threatened or he considers the other dog to be offering rude behavior, yep.  It would never, and has never happened off leash.  Luke is the picture of Mr. Social.  He adores going to visit everyone, dogs and people. If someone growls at him he just  moves away; he is a lover not a fighter.   Even now as his hearing is diminishing I often have to run and gather him up as he goes on his visiting excursions. 

So why do dogs act differently on leash vs. off?  First let me tell you that it is very, very common.  Putting a leash on a dog alters their body language immediately.  Many dogs are not trying to give off a rude or aggressive display but because of their leash it looks like they are.  An all too familiar scenario is when two dogs are meeting and then one owner pulls on the leash to move away.  That is when everything changes.  The dog being pulled away can no longer speak freely and opts for aggression.   It is something that I have learned to try to avoid.   Use your voice not your leash if you can escape it. 

If you ever have doubts about another dog; err on the side of not visiting.  With each bad interaction comes a built in defense reaction from your dog.  Try to find those great dogs to meet and greet.  I was very angry the other day when a woman walking at the park let her very large Rhodesian come our way.  Luke is very frail now and I don't want him messing with anyone; it is my job to keep him safe.  I saw her coming from a distance; I also saw that her dog did not have a leash on.  I very calmly got off the path and walked across the park.  When I turned to check on the pair; her dog was heading our way.  I stopped as she yelled to me "he's friendly, gentle and older."  I called back "he does not like other males," just as her huge Rhodesian did some jump, charge play bow type things at Luke and Elsa.  Clearly he wanted to play and clearly this was not going to make Luke happy.  "Put his leash on," I called to her and she did. 

The whole humans reading humans always boggles my mind.  She saw us move off the path and go in a completely different direction; should that not be enough to let her know that I was not interested in an interaction?  Yes.  It does not take much to knock Luke on his ass these days.  Even a big bluster that he does himself can do it.  A romp around with a friendly dog can leave him very injured so I am constantly aware.  I am always scanning the area for dogs off leash with stupid people. 

If you have a dog with leash aggression; work on staying extremely calm and not giving one ounce of message to your dog.  Get some distance, that is the key.  Although of course there are those who will ignore this distance and keep moving in.  I work with dogs, people are another thing completely. 

Meet and greets


As you all know I am big on socializing; it is one of the most important factors with having dogs.    At two years old now; Elsa has a great deal of it under her belt.  But the socializing doesn't stop there; I am constantly on the look out for nice dogs to say hi to.  We don't say hi to everyone and learning to calmly walk by some dogs is just as important as saying hi.  There are always dogs at the parks, beaches and fields that you just don't want to talk to.  They either give off clear "not friendly" vibes or their owner shares this information with you.  Too many bad interactions can cause a dog to react defensively more often.  So we are very choosey who we say hi to.

At thirteen years old, Luke is beyond needing socializing.  He has a list of dislikes that has grown over the years.  I know him so well that I can tell way in advance if an oncoming dog will be a match or not.  It can be a certain breed or body language that a dog is giving off.  If it's not a match we simply take some space.  As for Elsa, she is much more flexible yet she too has had some bad interactions so I do my best to minimize these.  Picking and choosing who to say hi to takes work.  You need to read the other dog and do it quickly.  Much has to do with an owner.  The other day we walked passed a guy with an older Labrador; Luke is not a big fan of Labs.  But the biggest factor in not talking to these two was the man who was barely holding the leash.  The dog was straining at the end and it looked like it was all the owner could do to hold on.  Not good. 

Leash aggression is a very common issue with dogs.  When you put a leash on a dog; several things happen.  One you have your dog within your personal circle making the guarding reaction kick into gear.  Then we add onto that the whole tension on the leash issue.  Humans typically do much too much pulling and tugging on a leash.  This in itself gives off lots of incorrect messages via the dog.  As the owner pulls back the dog pulls forward; which implies a lunging statement from the dog.  In turn the other dog seeing this gets defensive.  Then there is the whole relaying of our own emotions to the dog via the leash.  The leash also takes away the ability to move away for a dog.  Moving freely makes things much more relaxed. 

Sometimes I will walk very close to another dog so that I can see their body language a bit more clearly before making a decision.  Lots of people say "yes, very friendly" when asked but they are often incorrect in their response.  I make the decision for myself, whether they have said that their dog is friendly or not.  If it is just Luke with me then we don't bother; when I'm out with Luke I am out for simply the outing unless we run into a friend of his.  But for Elsa I am always looking for a nice dog to perhaps makes friends with. 

The other day Elsa and Luke stopped to talk to a nice little poodle mix.  He was a bit apprehensive but not enough to give off any aggressive responses.  We made it short and sweet which is always the best way to go and continued on our way.  Up ahead I saw a Golden and Siberian interacting; even though both dogs were wagging, it was clear that there was tension.  I opted to make a big arch around these two and to the other side of the park.  As we passed by them the little dog we had been talking to stopped to chat with the Siberian and they got into a scuffle.  I'd made the right decision as far as that one had been concerned.  If you are in doubt at all, don't.  It just is not worth the work of undoing the fallout behaviors that come from negative greetings. 

Socializing is wonderful but minimizing the negative is just as important.  Pick and choose.  Best to have two great interactions than a whole handful of bad ones; negative fuels negative.