There we were, making our way up the back staircase to my condo, Finn stopped then paced. I cheered him on and motioned a “go on up” hand gesture as he looked at me, then fluttered his grey eyebrows while he glanced towards the next landing, eager, yet tentative. My Lug halted a second time, and as I swung my arms again to encourage him, Finn started panting.
The gravity of slower stair trips was there, three times, then, twice a day.
I tried SO HARD to hide the emotional burden of what I knew less and slower treks meant for my admiringly independent Finn. Even during those sorrowful moments, I knew what I’d say to a client if I watched the same attempts with their dog.
So, instead of continuing to walk back and forth or swaying my arms around like I was in dance class, I sat on the stairs and waited. And, when I saw Finn place one paw on the first rung to move forward, I slowly followed in case he tripped. As calmly as possible, I whispered “good boy” as my Lug trucked ahead.
What I’ve learned from Finn’s senior-born anxiety, Gavin’s sidewalk standstill, and years of helping nervous, fearful, and worry-wart dogs is how a little adjustment in our body language can make a big difference.
Hovering and large gestures often discourage sensitive dogs. If your dog is terrified of going outside and you’re standing directly over him in the doorway and trying to coax him to join you, he’ll stop in his tracks. And, if you are trying HARD to get him moving along by emphatically waving treats around, he’s going to sit against the closest piece of furniture for protection, and drool is going to start flowing from his mouth in record amounts.
Instead, try softening your shoulders back, crouch down (unless the dog has shown any aggressive tendencies), and stop moving around so much. Wild, flustered motion makes dogs anxious. If your pup sees uneasiness in your body language, it’ll likely make him more apprehensive.
Our furry best friends do us the favor of learning our language, don’t they deserve the same? I’m continually mystified and in utter awe at our canines’ ability to understand us humans and mesh into our technology-obsessed, multi-tasking, NOISY lives.
Dogs watch and adjust to our actions. They also communicate their discomfort, fear, or ease with gestures, slight bodily adjustments, eye gaze changes, or small movements away from or towards us.
Leaning forward while asking a dog to perform any task, even basic obedience like “come,” go to their “bed,” or “sit” will often cause pups to pause. Why?
Dogs are masters at visual communication, and hovering says, “don’t come into my space,” no matter how oogly-googly, sugary-sweet the words may be. The more sensitive the dog, the looser and lower your body language should be to encourage steps towards you (or the end goal behavior), even teensy strides, are welcome and rewarded.
Our tendency when we meet a new dog is to reach and pet his head. Because, we as dog lovers, know that petting that four-legged whippersnapper would make us feel good.
But, for hand-shy pups or dogs recovering from past trauma, taking a slow step away can be a powerful tactic to build a bond and a much better way to help the dog learn to trust humans. For a scared dog who FINALLY or occasionally takes a step towards you, take one quiet step away from him, and you’ll see his face soften and body relax.
Watching and listening to what our dogs need isn’t always intuitive. But, if you make small adjustments in your posture and physical approach, your dog interactions will be much more harmonious, and your pup might give you the “YOU GET ME!” smile WAY more often.