Dog Behaviour Basics With Some Simple Solutions to Some Every Day Problems…
We don’t speak dog. They don’t speak English. Despite this, you and your dog seem to have no great problem understanding each other, for the large part. Despite many believing their dog understands every word they say, our mutual understanding comes from an older method of communication – body language. From the time they are born, it seems all the learning must be done by our dogs. Asides this not being very fair, taking some time in understanding dog body language will make your lives together so much better, aiding his training and can help avoid a great number of problem dog behaviours down the road. So here’s a quick lesson in dog body language and behaviour, then we’ll take a look and see how it all applies to certain dog behaviour problems, such as barking and separation anxiety.
Dogs Communicate Using Their Nose, Voice and Body Language…
Dogs are pack animals, just like us. As such they too are experts in communication, only the don’t use words. They can tell so much about each other, only they don’t use words to do it. One way they do it is to sniff each other’s butts. This is a form of chemical communication, made easy by dogs’ having noses up to 100,000 times more powerful than ours. You cannot even comprehend that number. Imagine if your eyesight was twice as good. Now try ten times as good. You’re starting to understand. Just inside the dog’s anus are two little glands called anal glands. Their job is to release a pheromone, usually on to their faeces, which contains a huge amount of information on them for passers-by. Like leaving a calling card or written message on a wall, other dogs can tell what gender the dog is, likely how old they are, how healthy, their emotional state, if they were reproducing and possibly even what they were eating.
Dogs also vocalise. They make a great variety of noises, from whines to whimpers, yips to barks, all depending on their mood and what they’re trying to convey. And, of course, not all barks are the same. Barking at the pigoens is very different to barking at the door to get out for a wee to barking at the front door should there be someone trying to invade his territory. Most of the time we recognise what they’re trying to say, other times we’re not quite sure why they’re doing it and, more importantly, how to get it to stop. Your dog should never be barking incessantly, it’s a sign of stress. You need to take action.
Nose and vocalisations aside, dogs are experts at reading both yours and each other’s body language. It is the most vital communicative tool in dog social behaviour, and it’s the one we can most relate to. When dogs are angry they make themselves as big as possible, ears and tail up, with big wide eyes staring, sometimes snarling, something like what a boxer looks like when squaring up to an opponent before a fight. When dogs are happy their eyes get a bit softer, they even smile, just more subtly than we do. When they are tired they yawn. When they’re inquisitive they make the same puzzled face we do. When they’re scared they make themselves small and avert their eyes, the same way we do. In this way, canine behaviour can often mimic human behaviour, it’s actually typical of all group living animals, and it’s one of the reasons we understand them so well.
Dog Behaviour Meanings
This is not the place to get into the nitty gritty of dog body language, it deserves more time than that. Aggressive dog behaviour, for example, can be quite complex, the signs often confusing, and the consequences so potentially dire, that it is deliberately left outside the scope of this article. If you want to know more about dog body language and canine behaviour as a whole then I strongly recommend the videos by Turid Rugas on YouTube.
That aside, the dog is always doing tell-tale things that give his state of mind away. Find below a simple dog behaviour list:
Some of these are obvious. When your dog’s tail is wagging rapidly and he’s spinning around in circles, yipping, then that’s most certainly a happy dog, probably dinner time! But of particular relevance to this article are signs of a stressed dog. When your dog is stressed they are going to a number of things. They might stop and stare. They might lick their lips. Chew the furniture or destroy something they normally wouldn’t. They might wee indoors when they’re old enough to know better. They might whine, bark or even howl when you’re not there, or even when you are. All of these are common stress or anxiety signals in your pet. And, depending on your reaction to them, they can get really out of hand.
Barking and separation anxiety are two of the most common dog behaviour problems that dog trainers must respond to. Which is sad because they’re so avoidable.
Remember two very important dog training mantra’s when dealing with barking. They are “Calmness and Consistency” and “You get what you pay attention to”. You can read more about them in our Basics of Dog Training piece.
Both apply to barking, particularly the latter. Before we begin however, we must highlight that barking is very different to whining. A whine is either the pup looking for something, for example, could you open the door I need to go to the toilet, or it’s the pup in pain. Either way, you should never ignore a whine. In the case of the whine you should be asking yourself, what is he looking for?
Your dog barks for many different reasons including excitement, copying other dogs, fear, aggression, stress, anxiety, frustration, boredom, loneliness, for attention, in play, to ask to go out or when he perceives a threat to his territory. Barking, whining and other vocalisations are part of normal canine communication behaviour. However, it is important that these vocalisations are not allowed to develop in an unchecked fashion. If you have a barker and want it under control, undoubtedly you have a dog that is barking for attention or barking to protect territory.
If you have a barker and want it under control, undoubtedly you have a dog that is barking for attention or barking to protect territory. For example, a pup may be bored out in the garden and at some stage, eventually, barks at a pigeon, or fart, or whatever. If you’re in range, you might at this point look up at him and smile or come up to the window and say Felix QUIET!
Soon after, should the pup repeat this little bark and you come running again, he is going to quickly learn that barking gets attention. You get what you pay attention to. In the same way, if you make a fuss of your dog every time he barks at a passer-by, you are acknowledging his action and, inadvertently, reinforcing it. Even if you attention turns to anger this can inadvertently throw fuel in the fire, particularly if he’s barking at a perceived danger, as he associates your anger with it and so he too steps it up to support you.
With barking, of all things, you must stay calm. If you get agitated, you are going to make it worse.
What to do about barking…
If it is determined that the pup is barking for attention your first course of action is to ignore (you get what you pay attention to) possibly even walk away from, the noise. If his barking action is fruitless (goes unrewarded) they are less likely to employ it again so quickly. If that doesn’t, work try these:
- Is he barking because he is bored? Are you walking him enough? How about giving him a meaty bone a key bark times? Or a kong? Distract him.
- Calmly tell him to stop (or make a sound) to distract him, then give him something to do so he forgets whatever he was barking at.
- Remove the stimulus. Is he barking at birds? Get one of those fake ravens on a pole. Is he barking through a gap in the fence? Close it up. Is he barking when left outside? Keep him in when you’re not there. Barking to come in? I don’t blame him. Let him in, you meanie!
- Is he barking every time someone walks by, acting like a tough man, and you can’t remove how he sees out the window (couch, block window sill, close blinds)? Then some behaviour modification is needed. As soon as he barks say “thanks!” in a happy tone and put him out the opposite end of the house for a few minutes. He will be standing out there thinking “this is not what I blood meant at all”. Then let him back in. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Soon he’ll realise he’ll get the opposite to what he wants, attention.
- If the above don’t work, get yourself a trainer! You brought him into your life, you have a commitment to make him stress-free.
Separation anxiety is anxiety expressed by your distressed pet after being left on her own. This may materialise as barking, whining or howling when you leave. They may try to escape or break out of the house, destroy objects or even self-mutilate. Pups may pace, salivate, vomit, urinate or defecate in the house (often in diarrhoea form due to the high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood). All common stress responses in the dog.
For younger pups, separation anxiety stems from the fact that in the wild being alone is something that would almost never occur to a dog, what with all the litter mates, babysitters and other pack members not contributing to a hunt. Young pups should therefore be eased into this situation in the initial stages. Never leave a young pup longer than a couple of hours and even then make sure it’s nap time (post action, post meal!).
Separation anxiety in older pups is a different matter altogether. With older dogs, certainly from 6 months on, separation anxiety is probably not a result of your pup wanting to be with you, a pup that is upset about being left out of the loop, per se. More so your dog, feels responsible for you. This can arise for two reasons. One, it is typical dog breed behaviour. It’s no accident that your shepherd and herding types suffer this issue the most, they are used to rounding up and protecting their group. It can happen any dog though, usually through your own unconscious doing, after they have been convinced he is the boss of the house. As such he will take up certain characteristics that come with the role. One of these is responsibility for all other pack members.
What to do about Separation Anxiety…
Whatever the reason, your dog becomes extremely anxious when you leave and all the problems begin. To avoid such a behavior developing you should:
- Before leaving your dog make sure he is well fed, well tired, safe and warm. Leave the radio on. When leaving the house DO NOT make a fuss of the dog. Keep it low key and out the door for 10 mins. Can you stand on your doorstep for 5mins and renter to a calm dog? If not…
- Practice leaving your dog for different amounts of time – 3mins here, 17 mins the next time, then 7, then 2, then 20, then 5, then 30, etc. Mix it up a bit. When you return to the dog, ignore him, keep calm and do not initially greet. Nothing has happened and on you go. Ignore all the silly behaviour she will do to get attention, jumping on you, rolling over, yipping, getting her toy. Completely ignore. If you keep mixing up the times she will get less antsy about you leaving (as long as she doesn’t hear the front door open close…).
- Break the trigger. A trigger is something that causes a behaviour to occur (think of Pavlov’s dogs, ring a bell to indicate dinner, soon the bell makes the dog salivate). There are lots of them to your dog. Pick up lead means going for a walk. Old runners means going for a walk. Open fridge means possible treat. Picking up the remote means I can lie beside you on the couch. Your good coat means you are going out without them. The triggers that can tell a dog he’s about to be left on his own for a long time and kick off his separation anxiety include setting the alarm, your good shoes, car keys, your work coat, going out the front door instead of back. Once the trigger is identified in your dog (simply go through all these and see which one brings out the most anxious dog body language, as above) you need to do a little behaviour modification, or “breaking the trigger”. This involves disrupting what that signal means to the dog. So, set the alarm, sit down and eat dinner. Go out the front door and immediately come in the window and give him a treat. Or climb out the window and come in the door. Put on your good clothes and make a cup of tea. Pick up your car keys and do a wash. Etc. All the while you are varying the amount of time between the trigger and the result until he hasn’t a clue what’s going on and it no longer makes him scared but interested in what Daddy’s going to do next. Then he falls asleep.
- If you cannot identify a trigger or break them (the trigger, not the dog, don’t break him), you need to call a trainer. It is an extremely stressful thing for your dog and he needs professional help.