Looking through the eyes of the dog…

By Gill Love (Borrowed from The British Boxer Quarterly)

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All dogs are basically wolves; regardless of size and breed they all retain the basic wolf language and outlook on life. The wolf lives in a pack with a very structured hierarchy. They communicate through sound, facial expressions and body postures. There is also a communication through their actions; for example, to stop eating to let the pack leader eat communicates that one wolf is lower rank than another.

When people took the wolf into their homes the partnership worked so well because there are such great similarities in the way we live. We also live in packs or families and have hierarchy even if we don’t always realize it. We communicate through speech, facial expressions and body postures. We also communicate through our actions; for example, a cuddle could convey sympathy or love.

When the dog lives with us he regards us as a two legged, bald wolf and tries to communicate with us in the same way as any other wolf; he tries to interpret our language (in whatever form, sound, posture or actions) as best he can into his own language. We in turn regard the dog as a four legged human; we also use our own language to communicate with the dog and interpret his language into our own. 

A lot of our language is very similar:

  • Facial expression is usually conveyed well between us.
  • Body posture is understood better by the dog; although we use body posture we tend not to read it well, relying more on speech.
  • We tend to understand most of our dog’s vocal communication and the dog understands our tone of voice quite well.
  • It is the actions of both that are usually interpreted incorrectly.

This breakdown in communication is not usually a problem. The dog will perceive something in one way and we the other; for example, when your dog licks your face you may think it’s because he loves you, but he probably wants you to regurgitate your dinner for him.

However, as we have said, the structure of the pack is of great importance to your dog. He must know who the boss is. Most dogs are quite content not to be the pack leader, some could take it or leave it and for some it is their right (that’s how they see it anyway). It is now that the communication through actions begins to get important. You may not realize that the dog is saying “Am I the boss?” and you are answering “YES!

So how does the pack leader think?

The Pack Leader:

  • Is in charge of the pack
  • Protects the pack
  • Eats where he pleases
  • Goes where he pleases
  • Receives attention on demand
  • Will not put himself in a submissive position
  • Leads the pack (goes first)
  • Owns all pack possessions
  • Sleeps where he pleases, but no one sleeps in his place
  • Is the most important pack member
  • Does not give attention on demand

Try and think of how these attitudes will be conveyed by the dog. Here are some examples:

  • Pushes past you at doorways and up stairs – Leads the pack (goes first)
  • Barks and growls at other dogs or strangers - Protects the pack
  • Steals food and begs - Eats when he pleases
  • Growls when you try to move him off the furniture or your bed, or won’t let you sit by him - Sleeps where he pleases, but no one can sleep in his place.
  • Has the whole house to wander in - Goes where he pleases
  • Gets praised and petted constantly - -Is the most important pack member
  • Puts his paw on you and you sooth him - Receives attention on demand
  • Won’t stay for a cuddle, pulls away – Does not give attention on demand
  • You can’t make him lie down and you can’t stoop him – Will not put himself in a submissive position

Now think about how you would interpret these actions.

Eye contact is another way in which dominance is conveyed, the more dominant dogs should not be stared at. The more submissive will look away first or will not even dare to make eye contact. The pack leader will often take up a high vantage point like the top of the stairs maybe. Now most people look down as they walk upstairs, so if your dog is at the top he will interpret this as submissive behavior.

There are other signs and gestures, but you are now hopefully beginning to look at things from the dog’s point of view and will therefore start to interpret other actions into his way of thinking. Try to think of yourself as another dog; after all, that is how your dog sees you.

There is maybe one other thing to say about the dominant dog. He is probably lovely. Just because he thinks that he should be in charge doesn’t make him a monster. Most pack leaders are loving creatures and they care very much about their pack. Aggression is not usually needed; they have already conveyed that they are the pack leader through their actions and you have accepted this by your actions so there is no need for force. Also, the dominant dog is by definition bold and self assured and so often aggression is linked to fear and uncertainty. 

So what if you dog thinks he’s the leader? 

Most people don’t speak dog and have not got a clue of the way their dog sees life. However, it is not necessarily a problem, if both dog and human get along like this, why upset the apple cart? Unfortunately this situation can cause problems and in this case that is when action should be taken.

In days gone by, force was considered the only answer. After all, if you made the dog do things by force you show your dominance, don’t you? Not always. A naturally dominant person may get away with this but remember, aggression can be a show of fear so your dominant dog could interpret your aggression as fear and only make matters worse.

It seems much more logical that if your dog has gained leadership by the actions discussed earlier, we can take back leadership by behaving in a similar way.

  • If you have not already, start training exercises with your dog.
  • Don’t let him push past you – Just pull him back or knee him out of they way. (not kick. Just nudge)
  • Never act fearful of situations when out with him. Fear can be conveyed by tightening the lead, speaking softly (usually done to reassure him)
  • Don’t leave his toys and bones down for him. Keep them put away and get them out for him when you decide to.
  • Don’t play tug of war games unless you win, and then put the toy away.
  • Don’t feed tidbits unless it’s for a training reward, i.e. tell him to sit first.
  • Don’t give attention on demand – either ignore him or make him sit first.
  • Make him sleep in his own bed, and then occasionally sit in it yourself.
  • Don’t let him follow you around the house all the time. Shut doors behind you and make him wait.
  • I know you love him but don’t fuss over him to much. Try to give attention as a reward rather than as his right. Call him to you for a cuddle but don’t go to him for one.
  • If at the moment you can’t really make him lie down, stop trying. Every time you lose the battle it only reassures him that his is the pack leader.
  • If he goes to lie down say “down” to him. He will begin to associate the word and will eventually lie down when you tell him to.
  • If he is lying down, step over him. If he is standing in your way push past him.
  • If he tries these things on you, turn the tables on him!

By taking these steps he should get the message. Some dogs, however, are a constant battle and you will need to be on your guard for the next take-over bid. Your dog will not love you any less for treating him that way. If you remember to think of him as a dog/wolf you will hopefully see that this is the way another dog/wolf would treat him.