To live a healthy and well-rounded life, dogs require physical exercise, mental stimulation, and a safe environment where they are allowed to express themselves and communicate their needs. Understanding exactly what our dogs are trying to tell us can feel a bit like solving a puzzle! When pieces of this puzzle are missing, we sometimes find that difficult behaviors pop up, which may include barking and destructive behavior. Finding your way to the solution involves developing an understanding of how dogs communicate and learn.
From the kind face at the front desk to the handler managing a playful group of day care dogs, at Central Bark our goal is to efficiently and accurately understand the most important communication our dogs offer us, their body language! Changes in facial expression, tail set, and body posture can provide an incredible amount of insight on how a dog may be feeling during their interactions with the world around them. Not only do we aim to support the dogs while they’re in our care, but we hope to help dog parents better understand their canine family member by sharing the behavior and body language we observe and helping them to decipher what those communications may ultimately mean. For instance, a tail that drops down from its usual carriage, or tucks between a dog’s legs, often indicates that the dog is feeling some level of worry or concern regarding the interaction that is taking place. A dog who is wagging their tail isn’t necessarily happy but may instead be indicating that they are ready for a social interaction, even if they are also feeling tense or anxious. Dogs who lean forward to sniff something while their back legs are extended behind them, or those who lean backward to avoid an interaction, are communicating their uncertainty. To learn more about canine body language, we recommend reading the book Doggie Language, by author and illustrator Lili Chin.
When we are good listeners and communicators ourselves, our relationships with dogs can truly begin to flourish and the puzzle pieces start to fall into place. One of the ways we establish clear communication is by teaching our dogs that offering certain behaviors, like sitting, will get them the things they desire. Our dogs may be reinforced by treats, toys, play, praise, petting, or a combination of multiple rewards. Determining what our dogs love is a huge component of being an effective communicator. A dog who doesn’t like bacon won’t be reinforced by bacon, so pay close attention to what your dog likes or asks for! Do they love a specific kind of food? How about having their neck scratched? Do they like both things equally or is one more enticing than the other? Once we know what our pups love the most, we can create learning opportunities that everyone will enjoy.
When teaching and learning together, having a clear goal in mind with easily attainable steps allows for a more gratifying connection between people and dogs. With a life skill like recall, for instance, after determining the reward your dog loves, which you’ll utilize as a powerful reinforcer, the next puzzle piece is setting them up to practice successful repetitions of engagement. By consistently rewarding our dogs for any attention they give us, they’ll begin walking with and coming to us more frequently and with greater reliability.
Once communication has been established, it opens a whole world of possibilities! At Central Bark, while dogs are playing with appropriately matched friends, they are also being supported by an enrichment specialist whose knowledge on dog communication allows them to guide safer social interactions while practicing important life skills in a fun way for everyone! This type of engagement and exercise positively impact all aspects of a dog’s life. By practicing appropriate social interactions, recalling out of play, and taking healthy play breaks, dogs are set up for success in countless other aspects of their lives. Dogs who have had their needs met in this way are less likely to seek out undesirable outlets for themselves. Outlets like jumping up, inappropriate mouthing, barking, and destructive behaviors. Keeping stress low for dogs and by extension, their humans, improves quality of life for everyone involved.
When we listen closely to what our dogs are sharing with us, we can create an environment, and relationship, that is engaging, fun, and low stress. From exercising and playing, to learning and resting, communication is key!