Reading the Dog Correctly. Responding Appropriately.

Reading the dog correctly is a skillReading the dog incorrectly can cause us to do the very opposite of what is needed.

Angus is a gorgeous miniature wire haired dachshund. He greeted me in a very friendly fashion and sniffed me (getting information about my own four dogs I’m sure).

He then rolled over onto his back, still looking very friendly, tail wagging.

His young owner said he wanted a tummy rub.

I wasn’t so sure. This needs to be taken in context and I am an unfamiliar person to him. There is a good chance it was a gesture of appeasement.

I didn’t touch him but just talked to him.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions when your dog does something like rolling onto his back.

As I found out more about Angus I feel I made the right decision. When he was a bit younger – he’s now seventeen months – he would do this with anyone new and may pee at the same time. He still may do so if greeted too excitedly even by someone he knows.

This would indicate too much pressure of some sort. Stress.

Reading the dog incorrectly can lead to other misunderstandings.

Angus may shake before going out on a walk. They assume it’s fear and possibly it is. It may also be in anticipation or a mix of the two. Walks may well be a bit daunting to Angus, particularly if he’s already slightly stressed.

They may encounter people who, because he’s so extremely cute, will want to touch him. He rolls over. For a belly rub? Surely not. He doesn’t even know them.

He is wary of many other dogs and his young owner has taken advice. She has worked very hard. She has been using a recognised system that works really well if the environment can be properly controlled. On normal walks however where dogs may just appear, it’s meant she’s not responding soon enough.

Some days Angus may just want to sniff and mark to the exclusion of all else. The lady will have trouble persuading him to move on and it worries her that if they don’t cover sufficient ground he won’t get enough exercise.

His walks will now be a bit different. They will be ‘Angus’ walks. 

Could the constant marking be some sort of displacement activity?

Is he avoiding facing possible encounters by doing something safe that he can control and that fully occupies him?

Reading the dog, in this instance, as attempting to avoid trouble rather than trying to mark territory will determine the appropriate course of action.

His walks usually take half an hour. Now they won’t have a set destination. If Angus wants to sniff, he can sniff all he likes. The lady will only move on when and if he relaxes from marking and sniffing. At present she lures him forward with food in front of his nose which means he stops to eat. Now she will drop bits of food on the ground in front of him as he goes to encourage forward movement, not stopping.

Then, instead of carrying on walking, she can stop him and invite him to sniff and mark again. No pressure. Understanding why he could be doing it will give her an insight into what needs to be done to avoid him feeling anxious.

She will now make sure anyone they meet hangs back and invites Angus over. If he doesn’t go to them, then he’s not to be touched.

I tried this as I was leaving. When, standing, I invited him to me he hung back – and he knew I had food too. Instead of moving over him to touch him which would undoubtedly have made him roll onto his back, I backed off. It looks like for all his friendliness he’s slightly intimidated by people when they are standing up which is understandable. He’s tiny.

Reading the dog correctly influences the appropriate response.

When in doubt, the best thing with Angus is to do nothing.

If I’m wrong about his reason for rolling onto his back, it’s better to do nothing than tickle when it’s not what he’s asking for.

If I’m wrong about the marking and sniffing being largely a displacement behaviour, it’s better to do nothing and leave him to get on with it if he likes it.

A couple of months later: I think he may just be beginning to trust me! Yesterday a man came towards us which we have met before. Angus moved forwards towards the man and then changed his mind and walked back towards me and sat next to me. It sort of felt like he was coming back to me for reassurance. As long as the dog is the same distance as being across the road Angus is quite happy. We have seen a few very unhappy dogs across the road who have quite angrily barked at us! And fortunately because Angus is happy at that distance he was not at all bothered. I think this process has probably been more about me having more realistic expectations.

Next ArticleBarking at People on Walks. Barking in the Car.