Communicating With Your Pet
Whilst I am no Dr Doolittle my training in behavioural medicine has taught me how to better “read” my patients’ emotional states. Humans use mainly vocal communication but our pets use a combination of visual, vocal, olfactory and tactile communication. Behavioural Specialists are now placing more emphasis on a pet being in a positive emotional state when attempting to train or behaviourally modify pets. Examples of negative emotions are anxiety, fear and frustration. Negative emotions motivate an animal to perform certain, usually unwanted, behaviours such as escape behaviour, barking or aggression.
How to Identify Negative Emotional States
Dogs, when placed in an uncertain situation, display displacement behaviours such as lip licking, yawning, grooming or head shaking and these can be early warning signs that anxiety levels may be rising. Clued up owners can reassure the pet at this stage by requesting a calm “sit and look” and then rewarding with praise and food rewards [note – reinforce your pet for the calm sit and looking at you, not the displacement behaviour].
As anxiety increases pets develop “micro” facial changes that increase tension around the eyes and mouth. This causes altered whisker position, lip puckering and wrinkles to appear on the forehead between the eyes. Further anxiety causes the more obvious escalating “macro” changes of flattened and pulled back ears, crouched body posture with tail tucked between legs, piloerection [raised shackles], gaze avoidance, shaking and panting, whining or whimpering, urination/defecation, dilated eyes, lip retraction and teeth exposure. Most animals will try to “escape” or move away from the source of anxiety but others may freeze.
What to do?
Owners of dogs displaying the early warning signs need to ensure their dog is attached to a lead and collar or harness and then move them a safe distance away from the “stimulus”. Highly aroused and anxious dogs are unlikely to respond to “recall” or “sit and look” commands and are more prone to fight or flight reflexively. Remember that pets in this state do not learn anything so persisting out of sheer bloody mindedness in the hope that your dog will eventually settle is not only futile but may in fact make them worse next time.