Empathy with your Dog

I was visiting a country show with my dog the other day, and wandering along amongst many people with their pets, pausing now and then to give my dog the opportunity to greet others with a sniff and a tail wag. We came across two ladies chatting with their backs to us, one of them holding a mature Labrador on a lead. My dog meandered up to it with tail wagging and a polite sideways look and it responded with a sniff to her face and a polite tail wag in return. They gently and calmly sniffed one another in general greeting. As they started to circle to sniff bottoms, the owner of the Labrador suddenly noticed we were there and turned sharply with a gasp, hauling on the dog’s lead saying ’He’s vicious, be careful!’ The moment she did this her dog started to tense up. His ears went back, his hackles started to rise and he showed the whites of his eyes.

What had happened? He was reacting to the way she was feeling!

I imagine that at some point in the past her dog had had problems with another dog and she had become increasingly nervous about how he would behave with strange dogs. Her automatic response was to tense up when another dog came near and pull back on the lead, to prevent a problem. What she was actually saying to her dog was ‘This dog is a problem. It makes me nervous!’ So under the circumstances it wasn’t that surprising that the dog tensed up himself, thinking that maybe this dog was a threat after all. However, just because the dog had had an argument with another dog on a previous occasion doesn’t mean that he will always feel the same way about meeting new dogs, so try to remember that and set a good example for your dog by being calm and relaxed yourself.

Dogs have the most amazing ability to read our moods and intentions in an almost uncanny way. The latest research indicates that dogs have been our domestic companions for over 20,000 years. Over so many thousands of years living in close proximity with us, they have developed an observable empathy with the way we behave and they can relate to our body language in an extraordinary manner.

If you point at some morsel that you dropped on the floor, the chances are that your dog will follow the line of your finger and snaffle it up in a flash. This ability to understand pointing is something that no other non-human species seems to be able to do, not even the chimpanzee! You may have heard people saying that their dog always knows when they are about to go out, or that they understand when they are feeling sad and this is often very true.

Dogs pick up on nuances of body language, tone of voice and movement that we don’t realise we are exhibiting, to read our moods and to learn what it is that we want from them. This communication is really useful to us and we tend to assume that our dogs understand an awful lot, in our relationships with them. However, sometimes our closeness with our dogs means that they pick up on our feelings and react in ways that can cause problems. Like the Labrador at the show, a dog can very readily pick up our tension and nerves and translate our feelings of caution into a warning of danger.

Try to keep in mind that your dog is probably well aware of how you are feeling most of the time you are close to him. If you’re worried that your dog might fight, act aggressively or do something else that you don’t want him to in a particular situation, take a deep breath and honestly recognise how you are feeling about it. Tell yourself to behave as you would wish your dog to behave – in a calm and controlled way. Try to be positive about meeting other dogs. Don’t forget that you are in charge and if you feel in control and confident then your dog is much more likely to feel the same way too.