Why do we treat dogs the way we do? What do I mean by that?
I saw a video on Facebook the other day of several people kissing the top of a dog’s head and laughing. They were laughing because every time they got their faces close to her, she would curl her lips up in a snarl. She also put her ears back and showed the whites of her eyes. She did not bite or move away, and her face immediately went back to neutral when the people would remove their faces.
Many people wrote comments, saying that the dog was giving calming and warning signals and could bite someone. The woman who had posted the video wrote back, saying she (the dog) never bit and in fact would also roll on her back and expose her belly. She said this meant what they were doing to the dog was okay because she liked it.
Let’s break the dog’s behaviors down and see what she was telling those people. Ears back is a calming signal. She felt stressed by their faces being so close and was trying to calm both herself and them. Showing the whites of the eyes is a sign of stress. Curling the lips up in a snarl is a warning signal and is a step away from biting. It is a sign that the dog feels overwhelmed and is trying to get the other party to stop their behavior.
What does it mean that the dog would roll over and expose her belly? I believe, after seeing that giving such clear warning and calming signals did not work, she would regularly enter a state of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is an emotional state that any animal, including us, can get to. Children who are abused will regularly enter states of learned helplessness, when they see that protesting does no good. They then give up and accept the abuse without trying to make it stop.
The fact that this dog has never bitten anyone speaks volumes to how long she has been treated this way and how long her protests have been ignored. However, she still could bite. She still could get to the point where she just can’t take it any more. Have you ever felt that way?
If this dog eventually does bite someone, the tragedy is that the blame would probably be put on her for biting, “without warning.”
Dogs are required to understand what we want of them. If they do not, they are seen as bad or difficult or out of control. In return, we do not do the same. To that dog, those people were out of control. She had no choice but to take it and hope they would stop.
I hope everyone who has a dog will take the time to read a short but important book by Turid Rugaas. It is called, “On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals.” Learn to listen to your dog a little better. Learn to be more respectful to the one animal that loves us like no other.