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Dog behaviourist How to read your dog's signals - they might not mean what you think

Some of the traditional beliefs around dog behaviour are not quite accurate, writes Suzi Walsh.

TODAY, 26 AUGUST is International Dog Day and what better day to celebrate the little furry friends in our lives who bring us so much joy and unconditional love?

There are believed to be around 900 million dogs in the world and over 400,000 in Ireland. Most dogs are treated very well by their carers, some are not, but all could benefit from a greater effort by us to understand and care for them. It is so important to remember that if you’d love to have a dog, it is a life-changing decision that requires a lot of dedication and commitment. The rewards, when it works are wonderful – dogs can be a fantastic addition to the family/home, but they deserve to be cared for and trained in the right way. And they can be trained properly, it just takes a little focus and consistency. 

This year, on the back of the increase in dog ownership during Covid and the rising cost of living, we are seeing a worrying surge in dogs being abandoned in this country. If you have thought the decision to get a dog through and have done your research, then please consider adoption over shopping for your new pet. The dog pounds are full at the moment with dogs who deserve love, protection and a safe home. 

Today, in the interest of improving the lives of our dog and our relationship with them, we look here at five famous dog myths and explore the facts behind them:

‘Dogs wag their tails when they’re happy’

Unfortunately, when it comes to dogs a wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean a friendly dog, tail wags are far more complicated than you might think. While it is true that friendly dogs tend to wag their tails, it is also true that dogs wag their tails when they are not in a good emotional state.

So what does a wagging tail really indicate? The most precise answer is that the animal is willing to engage. However, “engage” can mean a variety of things, from greeting and petting to fighting and biting.

A single tail wag, unfortunately, does not give enough information to figure out what a dog is trying to communicate. You need to observe the whole dog.

To determine the friendliness of a tail wag, pay attention to the range, the speed of movement, and any tension in the tail.

cutewelshcorgipuppydoglyingdownandwaggingits Dog wagging tail Shutterstock / MirasWonderland Shutterstock / MirasWonderland / MirasWonderland

A full-body wag that starts at the shoulders and extends all the way to the hips usually indicates welcoming intentions. If hips are also swinging with greater enthusiasm, this is even more likely to be a sign of sociability.

When only the tip of the tail moves and the body is stiff it indicates the dog is not friendly.

Sometimes dogs wag their tail in a rotating motion known as a “helicopter tail”. It is one of the positive signals that we look for when evaluating dogs because it is so strongly associated with dogs who are in a friendly mood. This tail motion is particularly common in dogs who are greeting a close friend, especially after a long absence.

‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’

Of course, you can! While it’s wonderful to be able to teach a dog from a young age it’s absolutely possible for them to learn once they reach adulthood and even into old age.

The University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna undertook a study of 95 border collies that spanned over three years and ranged in age from five months to 13 years old, in order to evaluate the effect of ageing on cognitive processes, such as learning, memory and problem-solving.

olddoglyingdown-httpwww-alexmalphotography-com Shutterstock / Alex Mladek Shutterstock / Alex Mladek / Alex Mladek

The first, and most important, finding was that all of the dogs were capable of learning. However, that is not to say that there weren’t differences in learning ability depending on the age of the dogs.

The younger dogs outperformed the older dogs in straightforward learning tasks, but the older dogs did better than the younger dogs in reasoning tasks.

However the ultimate test was to see how well the dogs were able to remember what they had learned after a period of six months, and the results showed that there was no significant age-related variation in the long-term memory test.

You may have to be more patient with a dog who has never had any formal training or indeed to help them change a long-established behaviour but it absolutely is possible in both cases.

‘When my dog looks guilty, it’s because he feels bad for doing something wrong’

As human beings, we like to assess dogs by attaching our own feelings and emotions to a dog’s behaviour. On one hand, guardians do not believe that dogs are as intelligent or emotionally sophisticated as humans and on the other hand we have a tendency to place very complex narratives to explain why dogs behave the way they do. This is commonly the case with the feeling of guilt.

theguiltydogdestroyedthepillowathome-jackrussell Shutterstock / san4ezz Shutterstock / san4ezz / san4ezz

Alexandra Horowitz, a Professor and acclaimed writer from Barnard College, set up what is known as the guilty dog experiment to test and see if dogs can experience the emotion of guilt. The experiment included commands to the canines from their owners to not touch a delicious snack and then the individual left the room.

Once the owners exited, some of the dogs were presented with a tempting snack which they ate; others, however, simply waited patiently for their owners’ return. What the researchers reported afterwards sometimes differed from what had actually happened during the exercise.

Owners who were told truthfully that their dog had disobeyed them and who scolded their dogs accordingly, received a guilty look from the canine. But when researchers falsely accused the dog of eating the treat and the innocent pooches were scolded they surprisingly displayed a much guiltier look than all other dogs in the experiment who hadn’t been able to resist the treat.

This suggests that the guilty look is probably caused by the scolding, rather than a reflection of the dog’s innocence or guilt. But more research is needed to really discover what range of emotions our dogs experience.

‘Dogs are stubborn’

Many people label their dogs’ behaviour as being stubborn while in fact that is probably not the case. In reality, a dog might be finding a task difficult to understand, there may not be any motivator for the dog to carry out a request or a dog might be fearful or in pain and unable to comply.

lazyyounglabradorretrieverlieontheroadinthe Shutterstock / Toey Toey Shutterstock / Toey Toey / Toey Toey

Always make sure you make an effort to rule out the possibility that your dog may be in some pain or discomfort especially if your adult dog is showing a new undesirable behaviour. Always seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian or behaviourist.

In the earlier stages of the training, it’s important to make sure that the rewards you use in your training match the difficulty of the task you are asking your dog to perform.

Maybe a food reward is not the right choice for your dog and maybe a toy is a better choice or maybe the task is just too difficult for your dog because their environment is overwhelming and distracting.

Different breeds (and breed mixes) of dogs are bred for different purposes. For instance, breeds such as Huskies have been bred to pull sledges, so they may be less likely to walk on a lead without extra training. Sighthounds may be more likely to chase prey, requiring additional recall work. While herding breeds usually nip and control other’s movements, and might need additional help in stimulating environments.

Finally, if you’re having trouble getting your dog to listen, please don’t think that your dog is trying to be “dominant”. Such theories stem from outdated thinking from the 1930s and 1940s and have since been proven false. The study of captive wolves from which these ideas originated is completely irrelevant, as they were displaying highly artificial behaviour not seen in a wild family of wolves.

Dogs understand that humans are a different species and therefore do not treat us in the same way as canine companions. These hierarchies are fluid, with no fixed alpha in any social structure; social circumstances change depending on context.

Give your pup love, help it deal with its emotions, and recognise that its struggles to listen don’t imply stubbornness – your dog simply doesn’t understand! With patience and attention from you, your dog will love to learn and listen to you.

‘Dogs are colour blind’

When it comes to what a dog can see, they can see more than just black and white. Research tells us that dogs are able to distinguish two colours, blue and yellow. They are also able to differentiate between shades of grey and they also can see brown hues. This means that your dog is unable to recognise the colours green, orange and red.

However, dogs see a lot better than humans do at night. They have many adaptations for low-light vision. Along with superior night vision, dogs have better motion visibility than humans.

Because of the large number of rods in the retina, dogs see moving objects much better than they see stationary objects. They can see moving objects much better than stationary objects, and they have 10-20 times greater motion sensitivity than humans.

There is an abundance of information available about dogs and their behaviour, but we must remember not to believe all we read without careful consideration. Dog-related literature can range from expert advice to personal anecdotes, each with its own perspective on the subject matter. What works for one dog might not necessarily apply to another; every pup is unique with distinct needs and characteristics.

The most important thing is to be kind to your dog, you can never go wrong with being kind to an animal and kindness will never cause a behavioural problem in your dog.

Suzi Walsh is an expert dog behaviourist and dog trainer. She has an honours degree in Zoology and a Masters in Applied Animal Welfare and Behaviour from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary. She has worked as a behaviourist on both TV, radio and has also worked training dogs in the film industry. 

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