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Pet Health
Behaviour Advice from Vanessa Amey

<Back to behaviour advice

Ain't Misbehavin'

This information is to be used as guidelines only. Decisions made about the future of any pet should be based on a professional assessment and a course of treatment that is personalised for the pet's individual situation.

Our canine friends can be difficult to understand at the best of times. They speak their own language and they communicate with one another in a way often beyond our comprehension. Having some understanding of how your dog communicates will enable training to be the fun it is meant to be.

As with humans, the senses play a major role when considering communication - but a dog’s sensory skills are somewhat different from ours. The dog’s sense of smell is much greater, as it has approximately 215 million more scent receptors in its nose. Dogs’ hearing is also superior: not only can dogs detect higher pitched sounds, they can rotate their ears. This movement enables them to hear noises generated from a far greater distance.

Another difference is vision; some dogs can see for up to two miles. Certain breeds, due to the position of their eyes, can see off to the sides whilst appearing to be looking straight ahead. Such dogs will often fail to notice an object under their nose, as their forward vision is compromised. Research has shown that not everything is seen in black and white through canine eyes, they can see hues of colours.

Aside from visionary differences you also need to consider breed differences in general. There are many breeds, shaped by man over the centuries, who have been bred with one purpose in mind. For example, gamekeepers want a dog that can find and retrieve game gently. You also need to consider the dog’s personality, an extrovert dog can be bold in manner when confronted with new situations whereas an introverted dog may become quite stressed. Early life learning experiences and combined with genetics will have a strong influence on a dog’s personality and how he copes with stress.

Verbal communication can be an effective way for your dog to tell you how he is feeling. He may bark if he is pleased to see you, or to warn you of what he feels is an impending danger. Some may growl in pleasure or as a warning that he is not happy. The body language he presents with the verbal communication will help you determine which way he is feeling. Barking and running around with his tail wagging when a visitor comes to the house is often a greeting; the same behaviour but with his tail held high and hackles raised indicates fear. Growling and backing away from the visitor whilst in a slightly crouched position also indicates fear. How you and the visitor respond will determine whether that behaviour is presented again.

Dogs lack the ability to rationalise: reactions you observe are driven by the instinct to survive. These reactions are spontaneous and if they work the dog will use them repeatedly, as they cannot distinguish between right and wrong. When a dog encounters a situation that causes him to feel fear he will try to find a way to alleviate this feeling. Dogs respond in one of four ways to fear and if his chosen method is ineffective he will quickly try another. To the dog it is all about gaining relief.

The four ways of coping with fear are:

  • FLIGHT: run from the cause of the fear.
  • FIGHT: face up to the cause of the fear, growl and warn them off. If that fails then he may growl louder and possibly bite.
  • FREEZE: if he keeps very still they might not see him.
  • FLIRT: try to appeal to the cause of the fear’s better nature.

The coping strategy the dog chooses can become a problem if seen in extremes. If he shows fearful behaviour in a situation you consider normal, and this is interfering with family harmony, then this would be the time to seek input from a behaviourist or counsellor.

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