Body language is really important. When dealing with species that don’t use English, it’s really, really important.
Trainers who work with a lot of fearful, aggressive, or fear-aggressive dogs soon learn not only to read dogs’ body language, but to communicate effectively with their own. I often enter a home containing a dog who isn’t really sure he wants me there, and my first priority is to convince him that I mean no harm.
There are three ways to do this, and two of them are dangerous.
“Look, sweetie, I’m okay! Be my friend!”
Many people will bend over, smile at the dog, and extend a hand. While they feel this is very friendly, it can be intimidating and even directly threatening to the dog — after all, the stranger has come closer, is intent on the dog, and is reaching toward him! Danger, danger! And the dog will likely be more frightened, and may react defensively.
Double-trouble if the owner is trying to coax (or, God forbid, push) the dog nearer the stranger as well.
“I’m pretending I don’t see you.”
Many people, knowing the first approach is less than efficient, try the opposite tactic, pointedly Not-Looking at the dog and staying very still.
The problem is that abnormal stillness is also very threatening. It can be both an agonistic warning, as in the previous link, or a predatory preparation for a killing pounce, as you’d see in a stalking cat.
If this isn’t clear, ladies, think of that guy across the room who keeps obsessively watching you while pretending he isn’t. Remember how creepy it feels? Exactly.
“I’m not here about you.”
The problem with both of the above approaches is that the stranger is focused on the dog, and the dog knows it. The dog can’t really relax until he isn’t the focus of the stranger’s attention.
I stand casually, weight on one foot, holding my gear (sometimes in a blocking position, if necessary, but not too obviously) and I have a conversation with the owner. Often I explain what I’m doing, but my tone rises and falls normally, I laugh, my face is expressive with lots of eyebrows, and I am so clear that I really couldn’t care less about this dog. All of this makes my breathing very natural and calm. I might throw (never drop near me) treats, but I’m not looking where they’re going and I don’t appear to care if the dog eats them or not.
Han: “Keep your distance, Chewie, but don’t look like you’re trying to keep your distance.”
Chewbacca: /Wookiee sounds/
Han: “I don’t know, fly casual.”
Fly casual. Be in the house, but don’t be about the dog.
(You know how people who don’t like cats always attract the cat, while cat-lovers are trying to coax the cat toward them without success? Yep.)
Last Friday I went hiking alone in the state forest, on trails much less-used than the more popular state parks. I enjoy hiking with my dogs, but I think it’s more respectful to leave them home in wilder areas — not to mention, I have a much better chance of seeing wildlife.
I heard a large animal on the trail in front of me, and I began moving quietly. After a moment I heard an adult deer crash away, but someone else missed the memo about which way to run and came down the trail toward me. The fawn stopped and regarded me, startled. I fumbled my camera to video and adopted the “I’m not here about you” posture and breathing (though obviously without talking).
I was definitely reinforced for my casual behavior. Even after he realized I was human and bolted, he didn’t go very far, and when he finally departed he wasn’t too worried. (I think he was actually just looking for Mum by then.) Of course this was a young animal, working off instinct rather than years of learned behavior, but still — casual posture was much less threatening than predator-like stillness.
What do you think?