What your dog is trying to tell you
We’re a canine-loving nation. Kiwis have welcomed 70,000 extra four-legged friends into their homes in the past few years, bringing the total number of registered dogs in New Zealand to more than 600,000. Our dogs are loved members of the family, but how much do we really know about them and how they communicate?
Ask any first-time dog owner and they’re likely to tell you it’s a steep learning curve. Before our furry friend arrives we buy all of the items they’ll need for a comfortable life, yet few of us arm ourselves with the knowledge of how to understand our new pet. It’s a common problem, says dog behavioural consultant, Selina McIntyre.
Based in Matamata, McIntyre is a trainer and author on how to communicate with your canine companion. Her job is about reading a dog’s behaviour and body language, through understanding their whole environment. “A huge part of this is the owner’s behaviour,” she says. In fact, it could be argued she’s actually training the owners, more than their dog. Working with clients throughout Hamilton, Waikato, Tauranga and Rotorua, her aim is to bring long-term happiness to dogs and their owners. Here, she offers her top tips on how to read your dog’s body language, common behavioural issues and how to solve these.
Understanding your dog’s body language
“Dogs are body language masters,” says McIntyre. The majority of communication is through body language so it’s important you understand how to read it. To work out how your dog is feeling, start by assessing their body language from the tail to the tip of their nose. Ideally, you want a relaxed body with no stiffening as this indicates an increase in adrenalin, and an unhappy dog.
Tail – A happy, relaxed dog has a mid-height tail that’s not tucked in. Wagging can mean happiness, but a stiff tail that’s wagging can mean heightened adrenalin.
Head position – This should be relaxed, with no stiffening. A bowed head indicates a less relaxed dog (unless as part of a play bow).
Eyes – These should be soft. A hard stare, indicates a more intense, less relaxed state.
Ears – Forward-facing, relaxed ears indicate a happy dog. If they’re pricked and pointing, this shows they are alert and responding to something.
As always, use the cues from each body part to understand the whole picture of how your dog is feeling. If you fail to pick up the signs that your dog is anxious, training goes out the window, says McIntyre. “Once adrenalin is fully heightened, the dog won’t listen to you – that’s survival mode.”
Keep it consistent Dogs are literal creatures. When training your dog, use a tone and body language that matches the command so you’re giving a clear, consistent message – at the right time. If you want your dog to stay off the couch for example, you need to reward them when the desired action has happened, not while they’re still sitting on the couch. Similarly, you should say “quiet” when the dog has stopped making noise, so they can make the connection between the word and the action. Dogs are generally motivated to learn but they’re often given very mixed messages.
Common issues and how to solve them
Reactive behaviour is when dogs overreact to certain stimuli or situations such as other dogs, strangers, noise, or vehicles. One of the most common owner complaints is barking, which is a symptom of reactive behaviour.
Barking is often a territorial response to people coming into or around the property. While it’s natural for a dog to feel protective of her property, she shouldn’t feel the need to protect her territory to such an extent that she’s barking ferociously and continuously.
To reduce your dog’s response to strangers on your property, start by teaching her the command “quiet” by rewarding her once she stops making noise. Then move onto making it more appealing to have people coming onto the property through desensitisation and/or positive distraction.
For desensitisation, get out a favourite toy or treats for your dog as soon as the person is visible and give this to her for the duration of their visit. Over time, she’ll come to connect a person coming onto the property with getting her favourite toy or treat. For positive distraction, you’re shifting the focus onto you, not the person coming onto the property. Decide on a selection of obedience commands that your dog knows well, e.g. sit, watch, shake hands, lie down and repeat these throughout the duration of the person’s visit.
These strategies can also work when you’re out with your dog and are near something they are likely to overreact to such as a bicycle or another dog. Reward the dog as soon as the trigger appears and continue to feed them treats until it has passed by.
Lack of socialisation
The first 16 weeks are the most important aspect of training your dog as this will prepare them for the experiences of their life. During this time you need to actively take them to different environments to expose them to new sights, smells and sounds. This allows them to form positive associations. “If you don’t expose them to different things you get reactivity – the fear response – and reactivity can then go to fear, then aggression,” says McIntyre. While it’s never too late to improve your dog’s socialisation, if your dog is over 16 weeks you’ll need to work backwards to undo any socialisation issues. Using the strategies in this section or working with an experienced trainer can help you reprogramme your dog’s reactive responses.
For many dogs this is a fear response caused by a lack of socialisation. Genetics can also play a part. There are lots of ways to help your dog feel less anxious. However, there is no quick fix – you’ll need to take small steps over time to see an improvement. For example, if your dog suffers from separation anxiety, use distraction techniques to gradually increase the length of time they’re alone. Don’t push it as this can make them go backwards. Specialised aids such as vests and toys and tailored classical music can also help to alleviate anxiety.
You could say Estelle and Kenneth Jansen van Rensburg are dog lovers, having owned more than 15 canine companions over the years. When the couple relocated to Hamilton from South Africa in 2020, one of their first priorities was adding a four-legged friend to the household.
Maltese-shitsu cross, Holly, quickly became a much-loved member of the family, but the couple noticed she was struggling with socialisation. “We got her in lockdown so she didn’t meet a lot of people. She’s very scared and very anxious around other people,” says Estelle. Holly’s anxiety meant she wouldn’t even let the vet come near her: “As soon as they tried to touch her she would nip at her. It got to the point that the vet said we needed to see a dog behaviourist.”
The couple reached out to Selina McIntyre and had three sessions with her to help them better understand Holly and improve her behaviour. These included a full assessment, practical tips and a follow-up to ensure long-term success.
McIntyre’s insightful revelations have been the key to changing her behaviour, they say. “She picked up on what we were doing wrong so quickly,” says Kenneth. “Holly demands attention and Selina explained to us that Holly thinks she’s the leader of the pack and said we needed to change our behaviour.”
In addition to establishing Estelle and Kenneth as the pack leaders of the household, McIntyre also gave the couple ideas for increased stimulation for Holly and advice on how to improve her anxiety through desensitisation.
The results have impressed the couple, who say McIntyre’s training showed them where they were going wrong. “Holly’s so much better already,” says Kenneth. “You can’t fix it overnight; you need to establish the habit and maintain it.”