DEAR DIDI: My dog seems excited when I grab her leash to go for a walk but when we actually get out there she acts bored. Sasha looks away from everyone and everything. She is a Goldendoodle (golden retriever crossed with a standard poodle) and usually very friendly so I would think she would look at people with interest instead of yawning and looking away all the time. Is she just being stuck up? – Diva owner in Ripon
DEAR DIVA OWNER: Dogs have their own set of body language communication methods. As humans we frequently read their body language and interpret behaviors from our dogs on a human level. As much as we adore our dogs as family members, they are not humans. The tendency to apply human reasoning, motives or behaviors to a nonhuman entity is called anthropomorphism. Creative writers, artists and cartoonists have elevated anthropomorphism to a fine art. However, when trying to understand our dogs’ attempts to communicate with us, we should avoid anthropomorphizing.
Every action a dog makes is an attempt to communicate something. Ear angles, tail height, speed of movement, etc. all tells people who know to watch, what your dog is thinking. Other dogs understand, but the body language seems to escape most dog owners. Yawning in a dog looks just like it does in humans. The mouth stretches widely and the head may turn. We associate the act as showing boredom, lack of energy, being tired, etc. In dogs, however, it means they are nervous. Yawning is a calming signal that is meant to show something or someone that they feel threatened and anxious but will not attack or pose a threat. It is their way of showing submission and trying to resolve a perceived conflict.
Understanding your dog’s body language will help you know how she is feeling at any given moment and therefore, be able to take action to help her feel more comfortable in those situations. Different things make different dogs feel nervous. If they yawn while training, you may be coming on too strongly. If the dog yawns while being hugged tightly by a child, perhaps counsel the child to just sit closely instead. Offer treats while you are on walks so that your dog begins to associate the scary outside world with good things coming to her. Enroll her in a quality doggy daycare program such as The Doghouse in Lathrop. This is like going to kindergarten for human kids. Learn to get out of the house, play with others, survive without mom, get exercise, be independent, etc. If daycare proves to be too overwhelming for Sasha then start out with a group class in agility, obedience, nosework or flyball.
Don’t avoid situations altogether that make your dog nervous. This will only make matters worse. Instead, do them more frequently but in a fun way with treats or toys, energetic and happy tones of voice from you, and for shorter lengths of time so Sasha isn’t overloaded.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. E-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Dierdra is available for presentations to organized groups on a variety of canine related topics.