The Importance of Reading Signs

If only you paid half as much attention to your dog as he does to you, you would know all there is to know about him.

For those of you who have visited the Desperate Dogs Ranch, you will know that we have a couple of signs on the long driveway, on the left as you go down the drive and at the main gate. Both of these signs are very clear -- one says not to come in unless visitors have an appointment and the other one, 100 feet further down, says not to enter the gates as dogs may be loose but to call the number on the board and let us know you're here. 

A few days ago, I was just planning to put one of the rehab dogs in my car for a trip back to the jail and, as I walked up through the house to get my keys, there was a knock on my kitchen door. I opened it, shocked as I wasn't expecting anyone, and there was a young lady, holding her purse and cell phone in her hand. She asked me, 'I just wondered if you had any job openings?' I stood there, open mouthed and Pete, knowing what was coming, sucked in his breath and ran inside. I asked her if she saw the sign and she said yes, she had. I then asked her why she didn't pay any attention to it, and she said "Well, I was just looking for work, so I thought I would come down anyway and knock on the door."

In any other situation, I would have commended this young lady for being industrious and go-getting, but, in all honesty, in an off-leash dog facility where it clearly states that you must not enter without calling first, I actually just thought she was being nothing short of stupid, especially as her phone was in her hand. Why couldn't she just have called? (Had she done so, I would have interviewed her as we are actually looking to hire someone!) I told her that I couldn't hire her because she had stumbled at the first hurdle -- "YOU CAN'T READ!"

Peter was grimmacing at me as I slammed the door and told me I was a miserable old grunt and I should be locked up. He's probably right, but I'm too old to care these days. However, I explained to him my reasoning for being such a nasty old sourpuss to the poor girl and then he grudgingly agreed that I had half a point. Just half a point!

Firstly, dogs, and people, learn some things through "one trial learning." If it's unpleasant (and sometimes if it's pleasant), one time is all we need to learn the lesson. I guarantee that because I was so unpleasant, that girl will pay attention to every sign on every driveway for the rest of her life. Nevermore will she run the risk of some weirdo English woman's wrath and decide to take a chance. Hopefully this will save her from getting her ass bitten in the next off leash dog facility she tries. Secondly, my business is ALL about signs. Not the written kind, but the ones that dogs give us every moment of every day. It's this very thing that stops a dog fight before a problem escalates; paying attention to the visible signs. If you don't pay attention, its too late. Dogs give us signals all the time and it's from looking at these signals, which are sometimes as small as micro expressions with maybe a slight tightening of the commissure, that we are able to determine whether the dog is planning seriously what he'd like to do to another dog, or if he's just thinking "what a douchebag" and not taking him too seriously.

I was at the jail taking the dog Hank Williams back after a six-day rehab stay here at the ranch. Part of the rehab work I do requires me to talk to the inmates handling that dog, and yesterday, myself, Hank's two handlers and the deputy in charge were sitting in the day room, chatting about Hank's progress and his chief handler started to play with him. At first Hank enjoyed the game, then he started to growl but in a "play with me" type voice -- the same type of voice that he would use if they were playing tug of war, maybe. Then, within less than a second, there was a change. The sound was the same, but I instantly told the inmate to leave it alone, and then look away. Hank's commissure had tightened, and his eyes had hardened slightly. We distracted Hank calling him to me for a quick rub, then he shook himself off (this is a tension releaser), and all was well. Had the inmate continued on with the game, Hank may have decided to lunge for him, and then he would have been in big trouble.

Dogs aren't like us, they can't say "Actually, I think I'll stop this here old boy, think I have had about enough of this, see ya, let's do lunch." Dogs rely on us to see their signals; failure to do so puts them at risk. In a situation like Hank's at the jail, it puts him at great risk. He's come a very long way as you all can see from the videos we post regularly, however, he is a work in progress, and is yo-yoing between us and the jail so that he will learn and consolidate, learn and consolidate, until he's ready to be adopted.

The other jail dog that we have been working with, Hoss, who we now foster here at the ranch, is completely rehabilitated from his fear of men -- the reason we were asked to work with him. However, that doesn't mean that I can get complacent and not pay attention to his body language and the signals he gives off in a new situation. Hoss meets all the male visitors that come to the ranch, and is great with all of them, however, we are careful to ask that they let him instigate the greeting, and ignore him otherwise. Once someone pays him no attention, Hoss's puppyish curiosity is piqued and he has to go see if they're immune to his charms, which of course no one is. 

A guy that came here last week, wanted badly to meet him and refused to just let it happen naturally. Even though I am a professional and have worked with thousands of dogs, he knew better because "ALL DOGS LOVE ME" (oh please, how many times have I heard that before someone got lunged at?) and began to crouch down to Hoss. Hoss, like the good boy he is, looked at me as if to say "Mum, what do I do?" His eyes were round, his ears were slightly back and his body was infinitesimally tilted back from the man. He was uncomfortable, and wanted permission to leave this guy who was invading his space, even though only by a little. I called Hoss to me, popped him in a sit, and then as I was standing, put my leg in front of him, shielding him somewhat from the man. He didn't growl, he didn't grumble, he didn't bark. It was the slightest of movements, the smallest of expressions, but it told me all I needed to know in the moment. He was grateful and happily settled behind my leg, relaxed visibly and later, when the guy wasn't paying attention, went and sniffed his hand.

As humans, we tend to look at life in sound bites, not ever paying attention to the meat of anything, just the highlights. We look at pictures and miss things all the time. If you don't believe me, try and do one of those spot the difference quizzes in a women's magazine and see how well you do. Sublety is getting more and more lost on us with each passing decade. With dog behaviour and handling, we need to remember that they are a species that notice EVERYTHING. If you're sad, your dog knows. You don't have to bawl your eyes out, just the subtle shift in your energy tells him all he needs to know. Feeling great? No need to scream it to the world, your dog's right there with you happy and relaxed as your mirror image and you didn't have to say a thing. The changes in your expression, the subtle lift of your spirits that is evident in the way you hold your head; the set of your shoulders, it all tells your dog everything he needs to know about you.

If you only paid half as much attention to your dog as he does to you, you would know all there is to know about him too. The signs are there for all to see. All we have to do is look at them, and learn from them.

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Pat Thomas February 18, 2013 at 06:49 AM
Great examples, Penny! One of the things that opened me up to the world of rabbits as housepets was the discovery (the realization, really) that they had a "language," and that they "talk" constantly, even if the silly two-legs aren't really "listening." Once you do start to "listen" and begin to understand what they're "saying," you can often start "replying" in kind. Before you realize it, you're having a 2-way conversation with a creature with a unique personality of its own... one who is often just as excited as you are to be "talking" to a member of another species. And I'm sorry, Pete, but I agree with Penny on this one: if the two-legs ignored clear signs in her OWN language, how was she supposed read the ones written in canine...?
Star Gregory February 20, 2013 at 12:06 PM
This is all very true. Great Post! Star Gregory, DVM Zutilla Veterinary Housecalls www.zutillavet.com


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