Saturday, March 21, 2015


This morning I am sitting in a friend’s kitchen in The Bahamas. Their dog Boss, who sleeps with me when I am here, is not feeling well.

I can tell this, not because he came up and said “Uncle Jim, I don’t feel well”, but because of his actions. Last evening he just wasn't his ebullient self. He was a little…quieter. Boss is usually pretty full of himself, and this was remarkable. At time for bed the dogs here all go out front for last call. Boss, who usually goes charging out into the yard to scare off any bad juju, was reserved. He went out and barely left the porch.

We came in and Boss went directly to his little bed. Now picture this: Boss is a 70 pound Potcake. He could sleep anywhere he wants-but he curls up into a tight little ball and crams himself into a bed at least one size too small. At the foot of my bed I have a large yellow dog crammed into a tiny circular doggie bed. And there Boss usually sleeps.

But at 2AM Boss got me up to go out. That was unusual. Then he wandered about aimlessly, finally walking back into the bedroom and curled up again.

Where he stayed. Through my getting up, shower, some early reading and writing. He was not interested in going out.

Now we are in the kitchen. He is curled up in another bed, and will not go out. His respiration is very rapid and shallow, he whines when his abdomen is palpitated, and he is just not right. So we will be calling the Vet, and likely make a Sunday trip in to have him checked.

I am sure Boss will be OK. Boss is not, however, the reason for this post. Instead, Boss’ morning is an illustration of one of our challenges in dealing with dogs. That challenge is communication.

Boss can’t tell me what is wrong. That is one of the reasons I respect Veterinarians (and Pediatricians) so much: none of their patients can tell them what is wrong. They have to observe, infer, poke, prod, and sometimes even make educated guesses.

Apart from illness we have lots of trouble with dog-human communication. It’s not usually on their part. They are sending messages all of the time. It is we who are failing to receive the information. We are missing the message. As Benjamin Hoff says in The Tao of Pooh, “Lots of people talk to animals…Not very many listen though…that’s the problem.”

Lack of listening is the single most common source of the conflicts between dogs and humans that I face in my training, my rehab work, and the court cases that I am involved in. People don’t recognize the messages their dogs are sending.

Last time in “Mind the Gap” we talked about letting dogs make choices, particularly in approaching people. We talked about sending the message that we are not threats, and respecting a dog’s space. A dog that wants to maintain space is sending a message. When we disregard that message we get stronger signals, which may lead to a bite. And then we have the audacity to blame the dog for “snapping with no warning” when the dog was clearly speaking to us. The dog was trying to communicate; we ignored it.

Lack of communication leads to all kinds of trouble between canine and human. Dogs tell humans “I am afraid”. Humans ignore the message and needlessly stress dogs. Dogs tell humans “Please get away from my person-you are a threat” and humans label the dog vicious. Dogs tell Police Officers “HEY! You are on my turf! I don’t know you and you are doing scary things!” Police Officers, with completely different agendas, answering calls for help from the people there, misjudge the message. With little knowledge of how to communicate with dogs, they react with actions more suited to threats from humans and tragedy strikes.

We are communicators. We, as humans, are storytellers. Storytelling is, according to some anthropologists, the essential quality of being human.  But animals communicate too. Our dogs may not be able to tell us about the time they went to band camp and…. But they do communicate. They tell us their needs, their feelings, their worries and concerns-all in the moment. It is up to us to listen and receive the message, and then use that communication to modify our actions.

Boss will be fine. Boss sent a clear message. I noticed – and understood – “I don’t feel well and need a bit of help here. Maybe you need to call Dr. Grant and let us talk. He has stuff that makes me feel better.” Dr. Grant checked and Boss had simply strained an old back injury. He is back to his normal self, still curling up in a bed three sizes too small.

Our dogs are speaking to us. We have the responsibility to listen. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015


If you have ever been to visit London it is extremely likely that you have used the Underground (in American terms it’s the subway).  If you have, you undoubtedly heard the disembodied voice of the Underground saying “Mind the Gap”.  Fans of Neil Gaiman recognize this as a particularly strong warning, but for the rest of us it means don’t step too close, watch your placement, and try not to fall under the train. Not a complex strategy, and a piece of advice that applies well to dogs and dog bite prevention.

Dogs are not all fluffy cuddle muffins. Some dogs need a little space. Dogs can be wary of strange people approaching them too closely right off the bat. Many times people are bitten, especially children, because they have pushed too closely to a dog that is not ready to accept them.

You see, dogs have a clear language and communicate well. But not all people speak dog. Those who don’t can fail to recognize signals that a dog is uneasy. If we are trying to impart information to another person and they are not listening we tend to raise our voices. Dogs have a bit of a different path. Their body language can express increasing levels of discomfort, but we have to recognize them as such.  How many times have you seen a person that does not speak the same language as someone else start to speak more slowly, and even louder? Slow and loud may sound clearer to the speaker, but the listener still doesn't speak the language, no matter how loud you shout.

That happens with dogs. Dogs start with their own language: body signals. Averted eyes. Tight lips. A turn of the head. Maybe a lip lick, or a yawn. They are speaking ever louder in their own language, but we just refuse to listen. We have limited is choices. Finally (and this may go quickly in our terms since dog signaling tends to be very rapid) the dog raises his voice in the only way he can: he bites, or at lest growls, barks and lunges. The human gets bitten and everyone is suddenly excited as to why the dog “just snapped”, or became “vicious”.

How do we fix this? Mind the gap. Don’t close with a strange dog. Even if the dog seems friendly, let the dog make the final approach to you. Stand with your body slightly turned to the side, don’t stare directly at the dog’s eyes, and let them investigate you at their own speed. Slowly extend the back of your closed hand for them to sniff. Try not to loom over them. Respect their space. Let them cross the gap to you. They will decide-or not. 

If the decide not to come to you, don't be pushy. Give the dog time. It may not be personal. Dogs have their own baggage, their own quirks, their own personalities. We all have our difference, our different level of comfort, our own customs for greeting. As an American I admit that when I first began interacting with a larger number of Europeans, future friends and friends of friends, I was unaccustomed to the hug-kiss-kiss greeting. Honestly, I still get hung up on whether it’s hug-kiss or hug-kiss-kiss.

Your dog can have the same problem. Maybe they come from a reserved owner, who says “Hi Chuck”, gives a gentle pat and then moves on. You, however, ma be “OH HELLO PUPPY YOU’RE SO CUUUUTE I JUST WANNA SQUEEZE YOU SO MUCH…” and we have a communication breakdown. Chuck is freaked, has nowhere to go, and doesn't understand that your over-the-top enthusiasm is just the way you are, not the threatening advance of a total nutjob. One of you bites the other and the situation goes south from there.

Instead of trusting in the good nature of most dogs, or just luck, mind the gap. Don’t fall under the train. Make yourself non-threatening, give out good signals, and don’t step too close too soon. Let the dog choose to close the distance to you. You and the dog will be safer for it.