The Dog Box

2017-11-30 06:00

ASSESSING and working with dogs repeatedly shows up the importance of an holistic examination of the intricacies of the interrelationships between dog and human. When a person jokes or teases a friend, a particular smile or tone of voice will indicate intent. These are known as meta-signals and are used to indicate that a word or gesture is not to be taken seriously.

Children need to learn to understand this type of behaviour if they hope to manage in the real world. Without it they will become at best withdrawn or, far worse, social misfits.

The same applies to our dogs. Part of learning about life involves skills acquired early during play and general interaction.

This applies to both dog and human. If we don’t allow play, we effectively destroy a dog’s ability to communicate and learn with others of its kind, and we risk causing a dog to become dog-to-dog aggressive. This underlines the importance of puppy socialising.

During play-fighting, two dogs will go through actions that usually appear to humans to be identical to those that would be seen in real fighting. Such performing behaviours include pouncing, chase, neck bites, hip-slams, flank or hock bites.

Among differences between play and real fighting are that bites are inhibited, and meta-signals are conveyed to indicate that although things might look fierce, the intent is benign.

Snapping that misses the mark is intentional. Like an expert musician’s ability to control an instrument, a dog has the ability to control the mouth with utmost precision.

In initialising a play session, important preludes to these interactions are displays such as “play bows”, almost coy “look-aways” and sneezes. Another aspect of a play sequence is that little pauses will be interspersed throughout the sessions to keep tempers even.

All of these communication skills and lessons are crucial to developing a socially acceptable temperament that is able to cope with the variables in life.

If one dog breaks the rules of play, then a reprimand by the other or a withdrawal from the game can terminate the play session. This teaches a valuable life-lesson: the importance of adhering to fair rules that enable us to co-exist with our fellows.

Just as we do, dogs need to learn manners. As a child needs to be taught the importance of “please” and “thank you,” and how to value another’s personal space, for example, by reading meta-signals, dogs need to go through a similar learning process.

Problems arise when either the child or the dog has not had opportunities to explore the language of etiquette. It can be difficult for an untrained human eye to distinguish between safe-play and real aggression.

Keen observation and an intimate knowledge of dogs’ body language is necessary to enable one to recognise the difference between aggressive, bullying behaviour and the necessary therapeutic play, and to guide accordingly.

In an absence of this ability to read the signs, serious problems can arise and develop, and these can become difficult to eradicate once ingrained.

Observers of human behaviour will be aware of how cohesion in a family or society is destroyed when damaging behaviour is tolerated, and how quickly it takes hold if unchecked.

It’s the same with dogs. Choosing a suitable trainer is critical because an expert will have an intimate knowledge of dog communicating skills and be aware of when to interrupt bad interaction without destroying the legitimate play sessions that are crucial to the puppy’s education.

Dogs also have problems when forced to share their home with whatever other canine their human decides to adopt. Psychologically healthy dogs can usually work out one another’s boundaries, providing that their human families allow them to communicate in their natural way.

Too often what happens is that at the start of any disagreement between the dogs, humans get hysterical and rush in frantically separating the now perceived “foes”. It might not occur that what the dogs are doing is perfectly legitimate and necessary, and that to prevent them from communicating their own personal boundaries and differences amounts to hampering their attempts at learning to coexist.

Consider the following scenario for example - you might tolerate a guest sitting in your favourite chair, but using your toothbrush would be unacceptable. If you were forbidden to communicate your displeasure, conflict would be bound to arise as a direct consequence of this prohibited communication.

Communication or arguments between family pets are often interrupted in the belief that suppression will keep the peace. Consequently, discontent escalates because issues or disagreements between the dogs are never sorted out, and compromises haven’t been agreed upon. Again, we see the same errors and consequences in human families and societies.

Proper behaviour is taught by abiding by certain social rules which can only be learnt if we allow the free non-violent expression of disapproval of unacceptable behaviour or intrusions.

This is why we humans place so high a value on freedom of speech for ourselves. Please allow your dogs to communicate with others of their kind. If you do not have enough knowledge to know the difference between normal and aberrant behaviour, consult a reputable, accredited behaviourist to help you do so.

- Susan Henderson© phone 082 386 5805.


Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.