By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT
Dictionaries state 1. The ability to communicate, to establish a relationship with others, which brings me to the word communicate. 2. To give knowledge, sharing with someone. 3. To be in a relationship, in contact, or corresponding with someone. Hence, one can conclude from these definitions that we communicate with our dogs; however, what are we telling them?
Let us look at the Alpha Roll as an example. Does turning Fido on his back and holding him there say: I am Alpha, submit to me, or else! On the other hand, does it mean: Periodically I will scare you, with no apparent reason, by tossing you on your back until you become inhibited. If you chose the second option, you are a champion. What we communicate to Fido is a question of perception, and in this case, we must look at it from the dog’s point of view. To accomplish this, we must understand the canine dictionary.
Dominance is an intraspecific concept; meaning to dominate the dog one must be able to talk the same language, which is impossible. I cannot lift my tail, pivot my ears or raise my hackles. Submission amongst dogs is voluntary, or there is a fight. I have never seen a dog, or wolf, take his adversary by the scruff of the neck, flip him on his back until he submitted. I will repeat, the animal will submit VOLUNTARILY, or there is a dominance conflict.
To illustrate this point let us look at this example. An elephant and a buffalo challenge one another in the Savannah; I ask who is dominating whom? The answer is, neither nor, and both at the same time. For, in their respective heads, they are displaying dominance behaviours. In this situation, there is no communication since the definition states: Establishing a relationship with others, being in a relationship.
In our example, the buffalo is trying to dominate the elephant by lowering his head and showing his horns. The elephant is displaying dominance by opening his ears and raising his trunk. They are demonstrating dominance by showing behaviours they usually exhibit to other members of their group. We see communication is not possible. The buffalo is not dominating the elephant, because the latter does not understand the behaviours. With this new understanding, how can we interpret our relationship with dogs as being dominance and submission?
The dog spends his time interpreting our behaviours because he does not understand our language. Here is another example. You must cut your dog’s nails, and he does not want to. You forcefully immobilize him until he stops moving and accepts your manipulations. My question is did you dominate him, of course not! In his head you scared him and not being able to run away, he froze. Remember, a dog faced with a situation, can do one of three things, freeze, flight or fight. Although the majority of canines will prefer flight, the alternative is usually “fight.”
Most dog trainers understand the dog’s physical language, but unfortunately, few know about the emotional language. Calming and avoidance signals are an integral part of the canine vocabulary, and understanding them is necessary for proper communication. This understanding allows us to prevent behaviour problems, which are, more often than not, a result of poor communication. Calming and avoidance signals are fast and somewhat difficult to observe, but once mastered, one can avoid many unfortunate situations. These signals are turning eye, turning head, turning body, tongue flicking, freezing, closing the mouth, ground sniffing, sitting, laying down, panting, yawning, play bow, and whale eyes.
Let us go back to our nail cutting example. The owner is on top of the dog trying to immobilize him, the dog yawns, wags the tip of his tail and invariably turns his head to avoid his owner’s stare. In other words, the dog is trying to tell you he is scared and does not understand what you expect of him. Remember, in his world, no other dog would dare do such a thing. In our example, Fido could make the association between pain and you, and think you are a potential danger.
Establishing a healthy relationship with an animal demands a maximum understanding of his ethogram. We must realize that communication is only possible between species exhibiting the same physical and emotional behaviour; all other relationships function on respect and positive associations. Preventing behaviour problems starts by recognizing we are not superior, or inferior, to our dogs, we are merely different; as Charles Darwin said, “Differences create diversity!”