For two entirely different species, dogs and humans communicate with one another remarkably well. This is due, in part, to a natural affinity for one another but is also the product of some pretty impressive adaptations on the part of the canines. When you’re trying to get your pet to pay attention to an object and you shift your eyes toward that object, most dogs will follow that eye shift. A relatively simple thing you may say but there’s no other animal on earth that will do that (not even chimpanzees), this is purely adaptive behavior on the dog’s part in order to better interact with humans. Sometimes though, miscommunication and misunderstandings occur and can often have deleterious results.
Frosty, a young Terrier mix, came to us a while back. It wasn’t hard to see why he’d been abandoned, he was a snappy little thing. He desperately wanted attention but would react to it by snapping at your hand. Other than that, he was a great little guy, zany to the point of absurdity and full of fun but totally unadoptable. As he tended to hang out with me and my gang, Dad had pretty regular contact with him and started to notice that the initial snaps were not ill-intentioned. They were however immediately followed by the “bad dog” persona and it was evident that he was ready to take that downward spiral. It’s probably safe to say that, in the past, he’d been scolded (or possibly hit) for exhibiting unacceptable behavior which, of course, triggered an aggressive response. My dad’s pretty perceptive for a human though and recognized these initial snaps as misguided attempts at positive interaction with humans as the body language was not consistent with being ugly and there was no force behind the bites. Dad decided to let him have his way, basically ignoring the bites while encouraging more appropriate interaction. The initial result was that the bad dog look never manifested itself once he realized he wasn’t going to be chastised and the exchange became much more relaxed than previously. Then dad did something that I didn’t understand at first and don’t entirely grasp now. Using a technique he calls “satiation”’ he gave Frosty constant opportunities to chew on his hand (this would obviously not work with a truly aggressive dog) and even encouraged it, all the while paying no attention to the behavior itself. What happened, which is typical I guess with satiation, is that the behavior increased dramatically at first but then started to taper off once Frosty got bored by the lack of response to it. Meanwhile, of course, there were always plenty of socially acceptable methods of interaction offered and Frosty could get the attention he craved in that manner. Lacking the constant negativity in his life, Frosty blossomed. I don’t normally gravitate toward small dogs, I tolerate them for the most part but Frosty’s pretty cool and we play a lot. He’s also turned into a real cuddlebug with dad and insists on sleeping in his armpit. Now, when he wants attention, he jumps up and “asks” to be petted, no snapping involved. Socially, he’s as appropriate as any dog here now. Although some additional work remains to help him generalize this response and increase its durability, Frosty will be leaving later this week for an adoption up north and, provided he can be found a human who is capable of and willing to follow up on my dad’s training he will add love and laughter to their home.
Now most pet owners don’t have formal experience in behavior modification but most of the time that’s not necessary. The thing here is to recognize the communication attempt for what it is. Had Frosty’s humans done that, the behavior probably would not have become an issue. Being non-verbal, we have much fewer means of communication at our disposal than humans and sometimes fall back on what we know best, what has been hardwired into us for tens of thousands of years. Not every dog bite is an act of aggression. Heck, when I feel it’s extremely important to get my dad’s attention, I do exactly the same thing by gently biting his hand and he takes it for what it is, an urgent need to communicate something. Probably without even realizing it, you’ve done a lot of this type of training if you’ve ever raised human children. Young humans’ actions and reactions are notoriously inappropriate to the situation and, without formal training, you’ve lovingly guided them toward the more acceptable choice. The only real difference here is that this process, with dogs, takes place at a somewhat lower level of cognition.