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Questioning calming signals

A few weeks ago, just before leaving for my zoopharmacognosy course, I had a conversation with our dog sitter. She had recently been to interview a local dog school, as she thought she may like to go to one or two of their lectures. She told me that she had the impression that it was all about control as the chap said ‘give me a dog who pulls and I will return him to you five minutes later walking to heel’. That is pretty much all about control without taking the dog into account. So she tried another tack. What about calming signals she asked? He said ‘ah yes I have an hour's class on calming signals but I am not sure they are much use as what happens when a dog has given them and then he attacks anyway?’ This is such a fundamental misunderstanding of who a dog is. I find it sad and shocking to hear this from a dog school. If that is what they are thinking and teaching how is the general public going to learn to better understand their dog? To answer the dog school question, the dog may have ‘attacked’ because:

  • Distance was not respected. As we know dogs are particularly sensitive to distance (there is not one good distance, it will depend on so many different factors including levels of stress, level of fear and anxiety, the dog's threshold in that moment etc.)

  • Very small changes were not observed accurately

  • The interaction was too intense

  • The interaction lasted too long

  • Calming signals were not seen or if seen not responded to

  • Stress levels were too high and the dog had gone over his threshold

  • The person or dog's body language was threatening

  • The dog's anxiety levels were too high

  • The dog was too afraid to cope

What is important to remember is that dogs need to learn how to cope and have self-control. This opens up a whole new world for them and it will help them live a better and more relaxed life. As good ‘parents’ we still need to be there for them to help them make the right choices should they find themselves in a situation where they cannot cope. This can be difficult for many people as very early on we are often told ‘you must control your dog’. However, if instead of controlling them we can learn to observe them, read what they are telling us and respond accordingly, it will go a very long way to creating a happy and relaxed relationship based on love, trust and mutual respect. Marina Gates Fleming is a canine consultant working in Belgium.

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