(Above) The handler of this Harlequin Great Dane uses a smile and relaxed body language to keep her dog engaged and happy. (Photo courtesy of www.petsadviser.com via Wikimedia)
From the May 2015 Issue of ShowSight. Click to subscribe.
“Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” —Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa spoke of the transformative power of a smile only within the human family—but then she hadn’t studied animal behavior. Results from a study done at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria and published in February of 2015, proved what dog people have already known. Dogs readily differentiate between a human’s smiling face and an angry face. The study involved dogs looking at photographs of human faces that were either smiling or frowning. In other words, dogs can correctly perceive, through just the expression on a human’s face—from a photo!—what a human is feeling.
Obviously, we humans belong to a totally different species than dogs, so how can they “read” us so easily? Well, first of all, dogs possess a highly acute ability to recognize cues from our faces, our bodies and even from our energy beaming out to them, what we are feeling. The limited study in Vienna didn’t test for that expanded ability, but nonetheless, it’s true. A previous study in 2012 by the Hungarian Academy of Science did find, however, that dogs not only understand our words, but also comprehend our intent. As the lead researcher explained, “Our findings reveal that dogs are receptive to human communication in a manner that was previously attributed only to human infants”. My guess is that there are quite a few other animals that have this ability, too, such as elephants, horses and some primates, but so far, the laboratory studies lag behind what ethologists have observed and experienced in the field.
Dogs are sentient, emotional beings and highly social. They include us as members of their family pack with the adults and older children being their “parents”, their dominant, but benevolent teachers, guides and partners in learning adventures. Dogs have lived in close contact with us for thousands of years, so they have had lots of time to figure out how to make good things happen with their human partners. On the other hand, we humans have lagged considerably behind in perceiving how to use our dogs’ talent of perceiving human emotions and intent to our advantage.
Whether we’re interacting with dogs or any animal, including other people, a smile and an encouraging demeanor gives them not only the ability to learn a new skill, but also the confidence to risk being wrong when attempting to find the solution to any new behavior we’re asking of them. Because dogs bring this ability to read our facial expressions, body language and intent, we have to bring sensitivity and perception to our interactions with them. Positive reinforcement asks for a particular skill without being critical. It rewards the slightest try while continually stretching the boundaries of what the student can do. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for a cautionary, “don’t even think it” look. There is. But that warning look will not shut down learning or experimenting, it will simply say, “Not that door; try another one.”
The performance sector within the fancy has done a good job of tapping into a dog’s talent for discriminating our facial expressions, body language and intent. In agility, we smile a lot, use our focus, our body language to help direct the dog toward the correct obstacle, call out encouragement to our dogs and they in turn respond with enthusiasm and “try”. During training we tap into their gift for puzzle solving, their sense of play and their desire to be a part of this game with us. In other words, they recognize and respond to our smiles and read our intent. Without those skills, there would be no agility trials.
Similarly, Rally Obedience rules allow handlers to smile, to clearly show their intent and encourage their canine partners to play this game with them. I think that this ability to have “a conversation” between dog and handler in Rally is a big reason why participation in this activity is growing so rapidly.
Although not as obvious, the conformation ring also requires handlers to smile reassuringly, have a loving intent and use their bodies to encourage a level of enthusiasm in their charges. I remember watching a well-known handler at the end of a very long showing day taking out each of her dogs, one at a time, to play energetically with them for 20 minutes or more, depending upon the individual dog’s needs. She understood that this happy playtime with her was essential in maintaining her show string’s mental and emotional fitness. If she had gone through the motions without an honest intent to be 100% in the moment with each dog, laughing and sharing their joy, the dog would have known. Dogs spot a phony in an instant. The schedule of today’s heavily campaigned show dogs is a demanding, rigorous one. Handlers who fail to grasp the importance of smiling, of loving intent and of encouragement end up with “ring sour” dogs that hate showing.
In addition to the importance of a smile on a loving face, there is a component to the dog-human bond that dog people don’t generally know much about—but horse people do and use it constantly. Breathing. Such a simple unconscious act, but that’s part of the problem—it’s unconscious. So when we’re tense, we don’t realize that we’re holding our breath which then makes our muscles stiffen and our bodies rigid. Now, if you happen to be on a horse and cause this sort of disharmony, you may have a long, sore walk home!
Fortunately, our dogs won’t inadvertently cause us harm if our bodies become stiff and tense, but they immediately feel that tension and it disturbs them—a lot. Now depending upon the “dogonality” involved, our dog may attempt to get away from us and that unpleasant tension as
fast as he can. He may cower in a submission attempt to make us relax. In the show ring, he may become stiff and restricted in his movements as he mirrors our tension. He may read our taut rigidity as the presence of danger from which he must protect us, so he lunges for the supposed source of the danger which might be a nearby and unsuspecting dog or human.
Part of any puppy’s early learning experiences in those “100 Exposures in 100 Days” should include his human learning how to breathe. “But I already know how to breathe”, might be your response. But do you, really?
If you’ve practiced meditation, biofeedback, medical relaxation, or even classical vocal work, then you’re on the right track. As part of the dog-human conversation, our breathing must be slow, steady and originating in the upper abdomen—the diaphragm. In times of stress for your dog, even allow your lips to part a bit as you exhale in a long, audible release of air. After only a few exhaled breaths, your dog will gradually relax and so will you. No mammal, human or otherwise, can remain tense when deep breathing. The very act relaxes the voluntary muscles and calms the nerves. Now comes the magical part. As your dog relaxes, time your own deep breathing with your dog’s. This synchronicity of breathing deepens the bond between you in a way you never imagined. For the dog, he feels that you understand him, you truly know him and you want to share this profound partnership with him.
Now if this all sounds a bit too “la-la land” for you, I challenge you to try it the next time that you or your dog experience stress. Is it a visit to the vet clinic? —a strange dog approaching?—entering the show ring?—anticipating the next agility run? Whatever the tension building stressor, try deep breathing while you envision both of you calm and relaxed. And smile. Then attune your breathing to his. If you have a Chihuahua or a Papillon, synchronized breathing with your dog may be impossible—their breathing is more rapid than ours—but it can be done with medium to large dogs. Heavily coated dogs present more of a challenge in observing their rate of breathing, but as you become more in tune with your dog, you will be able to discern it.
This contract we have made with our dogs over the millennia has evolved dramatically. For the most part, we no longer need them to herd our sheep or help fill our dinner pot. Being released from sheer hard work on both our parts, humans and dogs can now explore the more subtle, deeper aspects of our relationship together.
As proven in university studies, dogs recognize and understand both our emotions and our intent. Dogs actually want to understand us and they want us to understand them. So smile... and breathe!
Until next time,