Friday, September 25, 2015

Ditch generalizations & anthropomorphizing when it comes to your dog's behaviors for better outcomes

I deal with a lot of dogs on a daily basis, and I find it fascinating to tap into their unique "language" cues that convey what they are trying to express – both the verbal and non-verbal kind. I'll be honest, the latter is by far their more precise lexicon, though because of it's nature, is more commonly misinterpreted by many people. 

Why does this unique language barrier crop up?

Our shortcomings

Humans have come to rely so much on verbal communication with each other that we often miss out on everything that is being said, regardless of we're interacting with an animal or a human. The notion that we make assumptions about what is being conveyed rather than actively "listening" with our ears, eyes and emotional intelligence gets in the way, too. 

Think about all of the times that you've felt misunderstood, or like you've completely missed the point of what someone is trying to get across. Yes! – dogs can totally relate to that. The fact is, canines do not communicate ambiguously, even if they're lacking in social skills. (In that case, they'll most definitely let you know that they're uncomfortable or are unsure about a situation.)

When there's a misinterpretation with a human, often it just leads to a frustration. The same can easily happen when interacting with a dog, but notably – like we saw last week with a young girl in here in Michigan – there are cases when serious consequences can be the result. Those incidences are of special concern, since the opportunity to easily prevent an unfavorable interaction between a child and a dog is missed, and the outcome, even more disheartening for both parties and their loved ones. After offering some sage insight in a comment on the online article, the responses to it sent a clear message: 'We just don't understand dogs, but we have tightly-held opinions about them anyway.'

Projecting our own biases

It isn't an isolated kind of thing, this example of clinging to our misconceptions about why dogs interact the way they do with us, and what their intentions are when doing so. Our default is to relate an experience to something familiar – usually a reaction that as a human, we might have – and forge ahead with our opinion of what unfolded.

Just as an example, I'll use one of the canine behaviors that I often see misinterpreted: face-licking. Sure, dogs may engage in it as a positive gesture to those humans that they feel comfortable with, and some more than others. 

"Oh, this dog is saying 'I love you!' or "Look - she's kissing that child's face!"

These remarks are cringeworthy at best, as the human is likely anthropomorphizing the pet's behavior.

In any case, the behavior in a lot of cases is nuanced and intends to communicate something different than what the human thinks.

Sorting out and clarifying behavior objectively

Let's back up a bit so as to offer some context. 

Muzzle-licking is seen amongst groups of dogs and thought to be a sign of appeasement or goodwill. Wolf pups engage in it as a way to stimulate an adult pack member's reflex to regurgitate the food that they've brought back in their stomach to feed their young. 

But I digress. I'm going to stick to the interaction between dogs and humans. 

I've seen face-licking exemplified in several charges over the years, and the situations have varied. The point is that the context of each is different and I've figured out what is being communicated to me. One in particular uses it to get my attention if she doesn't feel like I'm homed in on her (usually I get distracted by her canine housemate who is vying for my undivided attention). If I'm within distance, she'll reach up or over and give a quick lick to the face. Another dog will do so after playing a friendly game when a toy is involved – think fetch or tug-of-war – and he is ready to end the interaction and take the object for himself. (If I'm standing, he'll lick my hand excessively instead.) 

The context of the behavior is vital of course: Is it one quick lick, in the case of my furry friend? Is it repeated face-licking with their full tongue? Does the dog move away once they've done it? Is the behavior present only with certain people? Is an object involved possibly? Is this a new occurrence? There are so many variables.

Paying attention to what is going on is essential because there's a possibility that a dog isn't comfortable, which needs to be addressed, and fast. I emphasize this when it comes to children.

Jennifer Shryock, BA, CDBC of Family Paws Parent Education details the variances in this behavior on her website that she coined "Kiss to Dismiss" in 2014. 

Below is an excellent video of a face-licking interaction between a dog and a baby that begs some questions: 

• Is the dog engaging the baby in a game? (The intensity of the face-licking changes during the exchange, certainly.) 

• Does the pooch want to be left alone with the bone (which may or may not be a high-value object to them)? 

• Is Bruno feeling conflicted about wanting to enjoy the toy in peace/being close to his people/honoring the cue from the mom? 

(Though it can be daunting to watch, there's a lot going on in the video. Never mind scorning the parents of the baby and stick to what can be extrapolated from the footage instead.)

I'm not sure that Bruno really wanted to play a game. Instead, I see a dog that has a ton of self-control but feels conflicted about what to do, so he's doing his best to communicate his displeasure and stay in close proximity to his people. I don't know a lot of dogs that would do this, and in any case I don't feel it's fair to expect out of them.

This is just one example of the canine behaviors that we might misconstrue.

The case for avoiding the simple route and digging deeper for better communication

The bottom line is, anthropomorphizing a dog's behavior is easy to do, as it is to demonize them when things go awry. With our canine counterparts living alongside us for so long and adapting so well (and quickly in terms of how much we've expected out of them), we need to remember that they have a language all their own. Though they've needed to stretch considerably to understand the way we communicate, we've not always reciprocated. In fact, we barely meet them halfway in a lot of cases. That has resulted in some unhappy, frustrated pets and unfavorable outcomes. We need to do better. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a contributor on MLive -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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