(Yea, the Little mermaid was my fave film growing up!) But it really is all in the body language"
We often say, “I wish he could just tell me what he wants!” But they do! Some of their communication signals are so subtle we often miss them until noticing a combination of them together or an escalation. Sadly, we tend to only really notice when it affects us, and by this point they have learnt the more subtle communication signals they have presented are ignored and stop using them realising other signals (usually ones we don’t like) are more effective.
The other issue I see is a lack of experience, and those who have experience have little patience for those who are new to ownership. People are often scared to ask what something means, and often the answer can produce a whole host of opinions. Often those opinions are based on out of date information based on research carried out in situations that quite simply is not applicable to our pets in today's society. Don't take my word for it, or anyone else's, there's so much free available research you can geek out on!
The aim of this blog is to discuss some of the common but often misunderstood signals, but also to geek out on others which I personally find fascinating.
A stress signal is a NORMAL behaviour, but shown out of context. If they lick their lips and aren't eating or drinking, think! If they yawn on a walk....think! If they show side eye when a person or a dog approaches....THINK! An increasing frequency of these things usually is them desperately trying to talk to us before they have to find another way to talk. And usually those ways are highly effective, so they repeat them!
Why does it matter? If we notice and understand the subtle signals, we can respond to them as needed before they escalate to the point where it becomes a problem. In the first week, and throughout my barking courses, and in the majority of my consultations I have the owners looking at their dog's communication systems. What do they do when they are happy? Relaxed? Stressed? Before the behaviour we are working on? By understanding this it often means we can change the cycle of behaviours and anticipate things and change the outcome.
I am going to start off with the roll over, this is, in my opinion probably one of the most misunderstood behaviours which if read wrong can often cause an escalation to an air snap or a bite!
Did you know there are different types of rolls? It's not always an invitation for belly rubs! Sometimes it’s a withdrawal of consent, a “please don’t” if you like. Surprised? I know!
When they are flat on their back, all loose and floppy with a waggy tail, bright eyes and usually a big smile this is our invitation for attention. They are completely relaxed and saying, “hey fuss me”.
Big eyes, curling into the photographer, smiley face, ears forwards.
However, when they roll slightly to the side and are more rigid, perhaps with their ears back, often with the whites of their eyes showing (will discuss this next) and somewhat still this means, “please don’t!” You often see this if you go to pick them up off the sofa, or even if you are trying to put the lead on. It maybe they are sensitive to you standing over them, it may be something is uncomfortable when you have lifted them previously or sadly it may mean they do not want that interaction with you.
See in the image how the dog is stiff? Turning away? Its ear's are back and it's eyes are more fixed? Compared to the other picture which is fully open to contact? The dog here is making contact more difficult but displaying appeasing signals to avoid conflict.
If the roll is stiff, I would be looking at why this may be. What situations they do it in. What comes before they offer it? Why might they feel that way? Then I would be working hard with them to help them understand that my approach is nothing bad and only means good stuff. I would also encourage more of them approaching me when I am asking for something. We have a tendency to force ourselves on our dachshunds, and some just can’t cope with that.
Next is the notorious side eye. Now, I have dachshunds, I know, they give a mean side eye. Chelly is the queen of side eye, her way of communicating, “nope, not gonna happen mum!”
However, funny side regardless, when it is shown in certain situations it’s a strong indication your dachshund is not feeling comfortable, and we really need to pay attention to that. It may be in response to you moving past them when they have a chew, it may be when another dog or person moves in too close. They will often show this in combination with other signals – like a lip lick or a yawn, and often turning their head away from you but it is a really strong signal that they are not comfortable. They will always try to avoid conflict if they can. It takes a lot of energy to argue!
Lip licking and yawning next. I don’t mean licking their lips after eating or drinking, and I certainly don’t mean that big old dachshund “yowl” greeting yawn (yup that’s a Dax thing!) I mean the small lip licks and tight yawns that they may show before or during a situation which displays they are uncomfortable. It may be when someone is trying to stroke them, or perhaps when you are putting on their harness? I see it a lot with dogs that guard items. They do say over and over again “Please don’t, I really don’t feel comfortable” and we just don’t understand, so they find the need to step it up to the next level – and then people say, “there was no warning.” There always is, but if they get to a point where they don’t feel heard......like us they escalate until they do! What other choice do they have?
Can you see the other signals? The position of the head? The ears?
The yawn can be tricky as they use it in many ways, when trying to calm play with another dog, as a greeting, and to indicate stress. Think about the situation they use it in?
There are LOADS of other signals, and some we are just not able to see, including scent communications. I’ve attached some useful links below which would be great to look at with family members. Your dogs are talking – but are you listening?
Stanley Coren, in his book “How to Speak Dog” talks about Lassie – remember Lassie? The tail of a dog who communicated easily to the humans around her with ease using her body language and vocalisations. Those of us who grew up with Lassie will remember how all the people on the show knew exactly what she wanted and wanted a dog who could communicate in such a clear way. If only it was that easy! Way to burst the bubble, it isn’t that easy, and to further burst our bubble – Lassie was 9 dogs.... all boys! (shocking right!) It demonstrates how we have all, from a young age been led to believe that communication with dogs is easy - but in reality, it isn't.
Now, onto my geek out, for years I have been obsessed about tail communications. I always talk about it on my barking courses, as people commonly say, “but.....he’s wagging his tail!” That doesn’t always mean they are happy. Research, and my own observations confirm what I have read has shown every wag has a meaning. The position of the tail, the speed it moves, or doesn’t move at, the direction of the wag – all have subtle meanings which other dogs understand. It’s the canine version of sign language. Its why some dogs struggle so much with docked or short tailed breeds, they’re missing a whole repertoire of communications.
Let's look at it, and I have borrowed an image from google, but have provided the source for you to geek out further.
Studies have shown that the direction of the wag communicates specific emotional states, as a generalisation, to the right (if you are facing the same way as your dachshund) means they are happy, and to the left, less so. (Siniscalchi et al, 2016). It is believed this is related to the brain structures, but I won’t bore you with that bit.
The paper raises the question however whether dogs can detect, rather than just show these subtleties. I won’t bore you with the study, but you can find it here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.09.027 ((Siniscalchi et al, 2016). It is one of many. There are some interesting results relating to heart rate etc if you want to really geek out!
Anyhow, one interpretation is that the wag dictates the emotional state of the dog and indicates to the other dog whether they should approach or avoid. Interesting isn’t it? These subtle cue’s our dogs should pick up from a distance, but how often do we misunderstand and force our dogs to ignore what they know as a “dog rule” to show the opposite behaviour e.g., approach rather than avoid??
So, now look at your dachshunds, record them in different situations –the slow-motion facility is really useful. I have found that in certain situations dogs will demonstrate a strong push in one direction or another in an apparent involuntary attempt to portray a strong signal.
This is what I have noticed:
High, loose and floppy tail wagging both ways – excited
High, stiff and rigid tail – WARNING!
High, stiff but quivering tail – HUNTING
Level with spine and loosely wagging – happy but appeasing
Low wag- cautiously saying hi but somewhat uncomfortable.
Level with spine, or like a J – Neutral!
Add in the directions:
Mostly pushing to the right – I'm a happy dog
Mostly pushing to the left – I'm not happy, I’m worried
Going both ways – excited or frustrated
This is ignoring the differences between coat types, the wires tend to have an excitable helicopter spin, the smooths a beating drum stick and the longs a big exaggerated floofy wag! It really shows how coat types and different breeds can influence communication just by looking at our own breed differences.
As you can see there is so much to it, and you MUST remember the tail is an extension of their bodies, not just one thing to pay attention to. If the tail is stiff, chances are their bodies are too. If their tail is loose and floppy, chances are their bodies are doing that silly little wiggle, or the ‘bumbum’ dance as I call it. If they are sniffing and snuffling, rather than hunting they will be relatively neutral. But if they spot or sniff something that tail will come bolt upright like a flag whilst they lean into the smell or visual stimulus.
How's your brain feeling? I'm hoping I've not bored you but inspired you to look a bit more closely at what your dachshunds are telling you. This is a drop in the ocean, but are the main ones I see with dachshunds on a day to day basis. It is important to look at other dogs signals and behaviour's too, so you don't end up walking your dog into a situation you regret later!
Something else to consider....but one for another blog....everything (mostly) is taller than a dachshund! So different view points also influence behaviour. Things diving in from up high may not give them an opportunity to show subtle signals if they don't see it coming!
Anyway, I’ve sown the seed, but the intention of this blog is just to give you a little to think about when you interact with your dogs and when others interact with your dogs. Are you misunderstanding these signals? Are you missing them completely? Or, are you in harmony?
Learning about them and teaching any children interacting with your dogs what they mean right from the beginning will make a HUGE difference to your relationship with them in the future.
They are talking......but we need to understand what they are saying! What else do your dachshunds tell you?
We look at all of this and so much more on my Stop barking courses. By understanding our dogs we have a greater chance of stopping or preventing reactivity and bringing about permanent change, and as a by product - improving your relationships with your dachshunds! Course information and other services are listed here: BOOK HERE | Perfectly Polite Dachshunds
And for the children: