Dog/human miscommunication and how it can lead to anxiety in dogs

Pack structure and the human animal bond are damaged in the confusion of communication in most instances of behavior problems. Understanding that assertiveness and submission more accurately describe a dog or wolf pack structure is only the beginning. However it has been my experience that this must be understood to achieve proper modification of behavior problems. Pack Leadership, The Alpha dog, Dominance, what ever you want to call it do not equate to being a bully or being aggressive. This is a serious misunderstanding by dog owners that causes a lot of communication problems. Pack leaders are fair and reasonable. They are rarely aggressive. Most of the body language your dog uses is to get you to calm down and be reasonable. They can’t call you, send you a text message, or talk to you in your language. They talk to you in their language. The more common mistake that I see though is people who view their dogs as furry humans, placing human qualities on their dogs. This messes up the pack structure because now the human is the subordinate. People assume that their dogs can understand and define every word they say.

Learning dog body language can take a very long time; a lot of observance, a lot of trial and error. For example, a wagging tail will sometimes precede a bite. A wagging tail does not mean the dog is happy and friendly. Body signals from dogs mean different things in different situations and minute differences within the same body part mean different things. For example, while the dogs’ tail is waging, is it straight up? This means the dog is unsure. Is it half way down, and is it wagging slower? This coupled with a lowered head and weight forward, eyes fixed, and possibly hair raised means the dog will likely attack if you don’t go away. As I work with my clients I point out signals their dogs are sending to them. You may not ever learn to interpret all of your dogs’ body language, but by examining what you are doing and watching your dog, you will begin to recognize a few signals. You probably already have a few down. When his whole body is wagging with his tail he is happy. Observe your dogs stance, ear position, eyes, lips, is he licking, yawing etc.. Is his body weight forward, or back? Are his eyes relaxed, or are they wide and wild looking? Now think about what is happening, what happed just prior to and during the body language you are seeing. Is your dog showing you that he is afraid, happy, or apprehensive, wants to flee, wants to fight, wants you to calm down, is worried about a predator or intruder? Video tape your dog from time to time and study his body while you play it back. What can you glean from the situation? The most important thing in this exercise is to make yourself see the world through his eyes. This is not easy, but with practice you will gain a little understanding about the communication between the two of you. Recognizing dog language and knowing how to communicate with the dog is essential in maintaining pack structure and correcting behavior problems.

Dogs are constantly using a multitude of signals to communicate to each other. These include subtle signals such as an eye blink or a lip lick. We also use a lot of body language to communicate to each other. Dogs are very observant and are quick learners. They are analyzing your body language to determine your mood or state of mind. They smell your pheromones, hear your heart rate and respirations, sense how tight your muscles are, and also hear your tone of voice. This gives them information about what is coming next. Dogs respond or react to the cues and their interpretation of them.
Most communication problems happen at the human end. We assume the dog understands perfectly what we are saying. It rarely occurs to dog owners that the dog is hearing something totally different than what they are trying to convey to the dog. This leads to the dog owner misinterpreting what the dogs’ intentions are. The confusion snowballs, and behavior problems result.

For example, Mary comes home after a hard day at work and Rover has chewed her favorite pair of shoes. Mary looks at the shoes, and her pheromones begin to change, her respirations increase, her heart rate goes up, her muscles tighten, her tone of voice changes. Mary begins to scold Rover angrily, and is so mad that she grabs his collar, drags him to the shoes and spanks him. She then drags him to his kennel forces him in and angrily closes the door and locks it because she is so mad she doesn’t want to be near him. Mary assumes that Rover understands that she is upset because he chewed her possession and he is not supposed to ever do that again.

From Rovers point of view, the communication is quite different. He had chewed the shoes hours before Mary came home. The shoes and the stress relief he got from chewing them were not even remotely in his thoughts. He heard her car coming up the road and into the driveway. He heard her approach the door, and was excited to hear her arrival. The missing pack member is back. He is excited and relieved. When she came in the door her countenance changed immediately. He knew from experience that she was sometimes untrustworthy and unreasonable. He knew as her pheromones and heart rate changed that a bad experience was about to happen. His response was to use his body to try and appease Mary to calm her down. He did not know why she was angry at seeing him, or entering the house. She interpreted his appeasements as a sign of guilt. (Dogs do not experience guilt) As she grabbed his collar and began to angrily drag him, what he understood Mary to say was “I might kill you”, “I have the ability to kill you”. Even though Mary shows Rover the shoes, he does not associate the chewing of the shoes as a crime for which he is being punished.

He could make many interpretations. Perhaps that Mary’s coming home when shoes are in that room means that she could become unpredictable. When the shoes are in that spot Mary is angry and may try to kill him. Mary is untrustworthy when the shoes are on the floor. There are many more possibilities. Rover’s attention span is very short. What ever he was looking at and thinking about when Mary started to get angry, is what he thinks she is angry about; Mary coming home to the pack and seeing him. The result of this miscommunication is clear. The animal/human bond is damaged. Rover believes Mary is unpredictable, untrustworthy and unstable. In his mind she is not qualified as a Reliable and Stable Pack Leader, as she could jeopardize the survival of the pack.

The ramifications of this scenario are many. Rover now lives with increased anxiety. He is worried all day about the state of Mary when she returns. He is conflicted. He wants to see her, he mostly enjoys being in her presence, but, will she threaten to kill him? His Cortisol levels are increased as a result of the cascading effect of the stress response.
Rover is now operating under the control of the sympathetic nervous system. I will explain why this is contributing to behavior problems below. He is not only stressed about Mary, he is also stressed because he is trying to “establish and protect his territory while trapped inside the house or worse his kennel where he can’t even look out windows or sniff near the door. He has to do his best to scare off intruders which becomes impossible in his mind while he is trapped in the kennel. He is also experiencing stress because the pack is separated.

So what would have been a better way for Mary to handle the chewed shoes? To begin with she should first admit her part in the crime. The shoes should not have been left where Rover could get to them. Ultimately it was her fault. When Rover was a puppy and she gave him an old slipper to chew and snuggle with, he drew the conclusion that all shoes were ok to chew on, they are comforting because the scent of Mary is so strong on them. It relieves stress to chew shoes, that was what Mary taught him. Mary did not mean to tell Rover she could and might kill him, but that is what he heard. This completely undermines their relationship. It would have been better for Mary to ignore Rover, and in a few minutes let him go outside to explore. While he is away from her, she then can take the time to go through her anger about the shoes and get over it before she lets him back in. By ignoring him when she comes home, she tells him she is the pack leader, (puppies seek attention from higher pack members) and also that it is no big deal when they are apart. By forcing him into the kennel, she now has taken a place which was supposed to be like a den, comparable to your bedroom and made it a jail cell. She has also forced him away from the pack. Forcing a dog away from the pack is very harsh punishment and should be used only at the instant of the crime. They should only be separated for about 5 minutes. Using a kennel as a jail cell is ABSOLUTLY THE WRONG WAY TO USE A KENNEL. If you can’t resist using it as a jail, get rid of the kennel.

Now we have Rover and Mary with a damaged human/animal bond. Rover has several things that will daily contribute to increased stress response; his kennel, Mary coming home, shoes, the untrustworthiness of Mary when he senses those same increases in respirations, heart rate, and pheromones. Only Rover knows what other associations he made with their angry interlude. Perhaps things like women wearing a long coat, or women caring that shape of a bag, women wearing a hat, women with long dark hair; all are unpredictable and not to be trusted. Rover will most likely develop separation anxiety, and possible aggression. He will live with his sympathetic nervous system governing his life, disabling him from being able to think things through so to speak.

When a dog is exposed to a stressor, a cascade of what is referred to as the stress response happens. It includes the behavior/endocrinal response fight/flight/freeze. Examples are: dog/dog attacks (fight), shying away from women with long dark hair (flight), standing still and trembling in the bath (freeze). The stress response is controlled by two hormonal systems and both include the adrenal gland. At the initial stressor the hormones are activated by the Sympathetic Nervous System and are released by the brain. These hormones trigger the release of adrenaline from the adrenal gland. About 20 minutes after the onset of this “cascade” the adrenal gland secretes glucocorticoids the most commonly known of these is Cortisol.
The increased Cortisol affects the breathing rate which increases, the heart rate and blood pressure go up, digestion stops, and vigilance goes up. As a result the thought process changes. Muscles are fueled so that the dog can fight or flee to ensure its survival in the situation. Glucocorticoids secreted by the brain near the end of the cascade repair and prepare for the next emergency. This state of living contributes to behavior problems. High levels of adrenaline are associated with heightened vigilance, anxiety, lowered thresholds of sensory perception; these make the dog more reactive to stimulation, rather than thinking. Higher levels of glucocorticoids cause an overactive stress response and depression. After a stress response it can take days for the glucocorticoids to go back down to baseline levels. If the dog has another stressful situation before this happens the entire cascade of the stress response starts all over. The dog will become sick physically and will become physiologically maladaptive. The dog will often over react to situations, or react inappropriately, or may even become listless. This is what happens when the sympathetic nervous system which governs the stress response is triggered.

The parasympathetic nervous system governs eating and recuperative functions. They are parallel branches of the autonomic nervous system which governs all the involuntary actions of the muscles, glands, and blood vessels. Each of the two systems need yet oppose each other. They can not operate at the same time without causing the dog problems which usually show up in the gut. So here is how it works out. If you punish the dog as Mary did, you now trigger a stress response of fight/flight/freeze, by doing this the dog can no longer think, but only react to stimulation. Rover now has a heightened vigilance/aggressive or depressive behavior response.

If Mary chooses a different action for herself, rather than a reaction, she can reduce the number of times Rover experiences the cascade of the Stress Response. She can eliminate confusion, the lack of self control Rover has, his lack of focus and lack of predictability. When Rover is not being governed by the stress response he can think more clearly. I am sure you can relate to this. Think back on a time when you were suddenly stressed or scared. A near miss of a serious car accident. You couldn’t think, you had to pull over to let the cascade of the stress response get to a place in the cascade where you were able to drive again. But even though you were able to drive again, you were still shaky, and couldn’t stop feeling scared, you still couldn’t think in a relaxed manner about other things. Your thoughts were still flooded with the horrifying experience. That is what your dog goes through when you threaten to kill him.

By using positive training, Mary can relax, and think about what she is saying to Rover. She will trigger the parasympathetic nervous system which will reverse the action of the stress response. Poor Rover can’t operate under both systems, it is an either or situation. If your dog is having behavior problems, think about the confusion in communication. What are you telling him really; from his point of view from his understanding. Are you babbling a whole lot of words with no meaning to him are you nagging saying his name over and over? Are you reacting instead of acting? Are some of his crimes really your fault too? Remember it has been a long time and a whole lot of negative reinforces that brought your dog to the behavioral place that he is. Things can change, but not overnight. Don’t expect miracles. Be consistent, but choose your actions carefully. Get a notebook and keep a journal of the times you see your dog exhibit stress. Record you actions or reaction. This will help you analyze your contributions to his problems.

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