Mama Sally: Much of success in any sort of relationship depends upon the ability to communicate effectively. Rugby is the first dog I’ve ever owned who consistently growled at me when I accidentally stepped on him and tried to apologize by loving him up. It was almost as if he seemed to say, “Listen lady, you just stepped on me! Back off! I’m scared and I want you to stay away!”
Sometimes, when we’d play fetch and he’d hurt himself by running into something, he would growl at any attempt to try to provide comfort to him. I knew that this indicated a lack of trust from him, and it honestly just broke my heart. However, I couldn’t figure out how to help him understand an apology from me. For many years, I just sort of left him alone, keeping my distance, knowing he would growl. I would offer kind and soothing words, but I waited for him to come to me to say he was ready to receive comfort.
Then came the breakthrough moment!
I had been studying dog body language and mulling over how I could use my own body language with him to help him understand that I was sorry without triggering an aggressive response from him. It was time to try an experiment.
I was sitting on the sofa, and Rugby was laying right on my feet, as usual. I moved a foot to re-position it, and landed on his fluffy tail fur. Rugby hopped up like he’d been stepped on, and took his usual surprised look and aggressive posture. Before he could growl, I immediately looked completely away and bent over at the waist to make myself look smaller….almost like I curled up into a little ball. After a brief pause of surprise, Rugby came to see what was going on, and went to see my face. Immediately, I shifted my head to look the opposite way, and stayed curled up. Curious again, Rugby came to see my face, but quicker. Again, I looked away, and this time, he ran around me, jumped up on me and licked my face over and over with genuine joy and excitement! It was as if he said, “OH MAMA!! You get it!! You’re saying I’m sorry!” He was so very excited, and so very joyful, and it was honestly a HUGE breakthrough in how we began to communicate with each other. I’ve used this method over and over with him, and I’ve adapted other forms of body language which he understands.
Since that day, I’ve seen a big reduction in growling from him in general. It was truly the beginning of a pattern where he began to trust me after so many years of failing in this area. It’s crazy that I didn’t think of it sooner, but it absolutely revolutionized how Rugby and I communicate with each other!
Because of the wonderful response I got from Rugby with my attempt at body language, I started using more body language with the various dogs I’ve trained, and I’ve also seen wonderful responses from them. Dogs are very good at figuring out a human version of how dogs would communicate in body language….much like we understand someone who doesn’t speak English, but is trying with broken words….to communicate with us. Dogs speak primarily through body language, facial expression and using their eyes. Barking is a form of communication, but most of their language is very subtle, and quiet!
I posted a review of a really wonderful book called “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals” by Turid Rugaas. You can look that up, and see what I had to say. I highly recommend this for every single dog owner!!
Rugby James: I’ve told you before that the Mama means well, but she just doesn’t always get it! When I used to get hurted, the Mama would quickly swoop down wif bof hands, leaning over me to love all over me, only it was so very scary! I didn’t know if she was gonna hurt me again, and I hadda use my telling growl to make her go away, sos I didn’t get hurted more from her. I didn’t wanna do that, but I was really scared when she would behave that way, and then she always scolded me for growling, what made no sense to me at all! Alls I wanted to do was keep myself safe! I still lubbed her, but I wanted her to back off until I didn’t hurt any more.
One day, she figured out how to say she was sorry in a proper way. Oh doggies! I couldn’t hardly believe that she was trying sumping new what actually made sense to me! When she maked herself small, and when she looked away, I knew she was saying, “I’m so sorry! I doesn’t mean to threaten you. I want peace between us.” At first, I was curious, on account of she had never did this before, but before long, it was really clear that she was apologizing to me. I hadda let her know in a really big way that she had figured out sumping new wif me what I understood! I know I’m not supposed to jump up on her, but I just hadda do that for her to understand how happy and excited I was. I hadda give her lotsa big licks all over her face to tell her I accepted her apology and that we were friends again. Nowadays, I doesn’t hasta growl much at all over stuff like this, on account of I trusts the Mama better, and she always says she’s sorry in a good way what I can understand. We’re a better team togedder these days! It’s a work in progress, of course, but we keep trying on account of we lubs each udder, and we just never give up at my house!!