I was working with a lovely client and her 10 week puppy when she asked:
“Do dogs like belly rubs? Because when I take my puppy to work, the staff like petting him but in response, Rover often throws himself on his back, showing his tummy and starts squirming about. Do you think he’s enjoying the experience?”
I loved that my client raised this question; that she’d noticed her puppy’s ‘wriggly’ body language; and also that she cared enough to ponder if her puppy was enjoying the interaction (as much as the human perpetrator!)
Do you Speak ‘Dog’?
Dogs and humans are different species – spoiler alert! And neither speaks the other’s lingo fluently. Dogs use body language to communicate (not words) so, if we want to understand what Rover is ‘saying’, then we need to pay more attention to his body movements. In the client example above, we might consider:
- Rover’s overall body language – is it relaxed when the petting is taking place? Or is there squirming and wriggling?
- Or perhaps Rover becomes quite still, with facial muscles tense, dilated pupils, ears back, legs stiffened?
- Does Rover start mouthing the human’s hands shortly after the petting starts?
- Can you see more of the whites of Rover’s eyes – a bit like a rabbit-in-headlights?
- And when the human stops ‘petting’, what does Rover do? Does Rover get up and move away; look away, start sniffing something ie does he begin a new activity (away from the Petter)?
What’s Rover Trying To Tell You?
The above body movements indicated that Rover was uncomfortable being petted by that person, in that particular context. Indeed my (savy) client specifically noted the following changes in her puppy’s behaviour; Rover went from lying in a relaxed manner to …
- Throwing himself on his back, wiggling …
- Then started mouthing the person’s hand.
- And when the petting stopped, Rover got up and settled a few feet away.
Calming Signals …
Turid Rugaas has written extensively about these sorts of body signals, she calls them ‘calming signals’ or appeasement gestures. The dog’s way of saying “I’m a bit unsure about what’s happening.” The problem is that humans often mis-interpret these doggie signals. (Or perhaps fail to notice them entirely). And because humans dont respond to the ‘polite requests’ from the dog, Rover feels he has to escalate his behaviour until we do listen – which is often when the dog mouths us (or worse).
It’s hard to see things through our dog’s eyes – after all we’re not dogs! But here are a couple of analogies for you to ponder:
- Do you like your feet being touched?
I love having my feet massaged but I hate them being tickled! With a massage, I’m complicit in the interaction in fact I solicit it! And my body language is relaxed and at ease. But if my husband tickles my feet, I squirm, I’m tense … trying to escape. A bit like Rover and the unwanted petting.
- How do you respond to being hugged?
Maybe you snuggle into the other person’s arms and hug them back? Or maybe you tense up because it’s not what you want right now? Does it vary according to the person, the place, the context?
Dogs Are Individuals, Just Like Us
I’m not saying that all dogs hate belly rubs – some love them! But it’s nice to give the dog a choice; a chance to say “no thank you” or “yes please” -otherwise we’re just doing stuff ‘to’ the dog without it’s consent. Here are a couple of easy ways YOU can give a dog choices:
- Watch how the puppy responds to your advances! Ideally the puppy should have calm, relaxed body language (like the massage example above).
- Keep petting short – 3 to 5 seconds is ample. Then gently take your hands away and see what the puppy does? Grisha Stewart has a nice video on this called the “5 Second Rule”.
- Choice = Respect. I hope you’ll agree giving dogs (and people) choices is a kinder way to be?
Article written by Joy Knowles.
For help training or understanding your dog better, contact Joyful Dogs