Bridging the gap
An article with thepack.in on understanding your dog’s behaviour
We never give it much thought but being a dog parent is quite weird — you bring an animal into your house and expect it to understand you and adjust to your life and home. Yet, somehow, millions of people do this every day! So, how do we go from being two beings of different species with no common language to communicating effortlessly and coexisting harmoniously? The key to achieving this lies in your dog’s behaviour and how well you understand it.
Before we delve into understanding your dogs’ behaviour, let’s first understand what behaviour is. If we refer to the dictionary, behaviour is a response to stimuli, and yes, in essence, it is that. However, in the context of domestic dog-human relationships, with their lack of verbal language, behaviour is, more importantly, a means of communication. It is the crux of your relationship with your dog.
How do dogs communicate?
In the absence of verbal language, humans may use signing to communicate, and that’s what our dogs do too. As dog parents, we mostly know what more extensive body language cues mean in our dogs. For example, a tucked-in tail and rigid body versus a calm and relaxed stance. However, we often overlook the subtle cues that our dogs send out, especially in stressful situations. These cues are called calming signals and are the building blocks of communication with our dogs. Our dogs display these all the time, and they can be as subtle as slightly turning the neck and licking the lips.
Calming signals can be physical or visual, auditory (related to sound) or olfactory (related to smell). Dogs have evolved to incorporate these in their behaviour to communicate with other dogs and humans (we really should be flattered at this!). These signals may be voluntary (whining while yawning) or involuntary (releasing a particular smell from the body when stressed). The most common calming signals are visual such as turning away, wagging the tail in a low position, making the body appear small, moving slowly, lifting a paw, etc.
Calming signals do not indicate that your dog is aggressive. On the contrary, they demonstrate that your dog is maxing out their limits to maintain peace and prevent escalation. Understanding these subtle cues helps us de-escalate a situation before it becomes overwhelming for the dog. You can find some common calming signals online. Remember that context matters — if your dog has just had food and is licking their lips, they may not be exhibiting a calming signal.
Beyond these subtle cues, there are more prominent behaviours such as pacing, peeing/soiling, shredding, barking, hyperactivity/hypoactivity, etc. None of these behaviours happens without a cause, and each can cue us into what our dog is experiencing.
Factors that influence dog behaviours
Behaviour is affected by the species, the breed, and ultimately, the individual dog. For example, trying to steal food from the table is a scavenger trait related to the species, running a lot or needing to hold something in the mouth may be specific to hounds or retrievers, and being scared of thunder or preferring to sleep a certain way is up to the individual dog. Namratha Rao, one of the canine behaviourists working with thepack.in, splits factors that influence dog behaviours into two categories — Nature and Nurture.
Nature is what the dog is born with, and it involves genetics and breed. A puppy is born with genes from the mother and father. Genes affect attributes such as coat colour, height, predisposition to diseases, etc. They can also be a marker for aggression and behavioural issues (one of my pet peeves with unregulated and unscientific backyard breeding, but I shall harp on that later).
We broadly tend to overlook genetics and pin aggression on the breed. While the dog’s breed isn’t necessarily a marker for aggressiveness, it can be beneficial in understanding what the dog needs. Specific breeds were created for certain tasks, and your dog will be better adjusted if the inherent breed needs are met. The most common examples of this are our dear Beagles. Confined to apartments and exercised infrequently, they often display behavioural issues because their humans never bothered to look beyond their size and understand that they’re hunting dogs before bringing them home.
Nurture involves everything that comes after the dog’s birth. Early separation from the mother can result in the puppy missing out on crucial social lessons. A lack of socialisation (explained below) can result in an underconfident dog. Traumatic events such as accidents or abuse can leave a lasting impact on the dog’s behaviour. Health issues like arthritis and pain, or those that deplete your dog’s energy may lead to unmotivated and sluggish dogs. On that note, Thyroid imbalance is co-related to aggression, as are gut issues. Even something as insignificant as your house’s slippery floors can lead to problems that present as behavioural concerns.
While all of the ‘Nurture’ factors are important to address, the most crucial bit of nurturing (and perhaps the most misunderstood and overlooked too) is Socialisation. Namratha describes socialisation as a critical period of development — learnings in this period last a lifetime. The socialisation window is up to 4 months of age, though some sources say it is till 6 months. The process involves exposing your dog to various sights, sounds, smells, textures, people, places, etc. Fundamentally, socialisation requires you to use every opportunity for your dog to be social and adapt to your life.
Dogs that have been socialised well tend to be better-adjusted adults and display fewer behavioural issues. However, not every dog comes home at 2 months old. Today, more people are adopting dogs than before, so your dog may arrive home at an older age, and they may or may not have been socialised well enough. While ‘Socialisation’ may not be possible at that age, counter-conditioning can be done to ensure you have a well-adjusted dog. This will depend upon the individual dog and the family the dog goes into. If your dog has behavioural issues, you can either decide to let them be (if they are insignificant) or fix them. Fixing the issue will depend upon how long it has persisted and how old and adaptable your dog is. Behaviours practised for a long time will take time to undo. It is advisable to avoid stimuli that elicit unwanted behaviour while training your dog to undo the behaviour.
The importance of understanding your dog’s behaviour
Namratha says, “If you want your dog to listen to you, you must first listen to them.” It is our ethical obligation to understand the animal in the house — the whys and the hows of their shared existence with us. As beings from different species, even our method of thinking differs. That, among other things, reflects in the way we communicate. Since we bring the dog into our environment, the onus is on us to understand these differences and quirks. Through this, we can adjust what we offer, impact their behaviour for the better, and make our shared life easier.
Behaviour also clues us into our dogs’ health and overall wellbeing. A well-understood dog is not just a well-adjusted dog but a healthy, happy and confident dog too. You and your dog are two beings with no common language, just a shared love for food and company. With a little bit of understanding and effort, you can easily bridge that gap in communication and lead a harmonious life together.
This article is part 1 of 3 of a series around understanding and managing behaviour in dogs, written in collaboration with The Pack.
thePack.in is a Bangalore-based start-up working towards helping people and dogs live happier lives together. They bring together India’s top dog behaviourists, trainers, and veterinarians on their platform to educate parents from the convenience of their homes. From day-to-day challenges of toilet training and puppy biting to complex behavioural and medical issues, thePack’s experts are there to support you throughout your journey. After all, it takes a Pack to raise a pet!
A special shoutout to Namratha Rao, one of the splendid canine behavourists at thepack.in, and to Aditi Naik, a part of thePack’s Social Media team, for making this collaboration easy, seamless and fun! Namratha is a certified canine trainer and behaviourist, working with dogs professionally since 2013. She runs Pawsitive Tales, and generously shared her wisdom with me for this article. You can reach out to her via Instagram or the Pawsitive Tales website. Aditi runs She By The Snout — a petsitting service in Bangalore and can be contacted on Instagram.