Imagine that from the minute you wake in the morning until you lay your head down at night, that someone is bugging you. You’ve got someone tugging on you, someone talking to you, you can’t get a moment to yourself. Not one second to yourself.
Now imagine that’s what happens every day. You’ve tried to hide from the person, you’ve tried giving them the slip, you’ve tried ignoring the person. Nothing. They’re still there, still bugging you. Every minute of every day.
Finally, you’ve had enough of it. You can’t take it anymore. You’ve got to do something about it. That person missed all your subtle signals, so you politely ask him (her?) to leave you alone. They don’t listen. And worse, you get chastized for even asking. How do you feel? Probably hopeless. Maybe frustrated. Possibly sad.
Do you think the person that politely asks for a little space, a little peace, a little quiet deserves to be chastized?
So why do we hold dogs to higher standards than we do people? Humans can at least talk the same language. We’re actually able to speak our minds and get some space. Dogs don’t have that ability – they must rely solely on body signals to communicate their needs, their state of mind.
When we ignore those signals, we’re setting the dog up for failure. That was my point in writing the blog post about Mr. Gibbs, the service dog for the three year old girl. I see a lot of “please give me a break” signals from Mr. Gibbs. And no one is either seeing those signals or doing anything to help the dog.
Remember the Denver news anchor, Kyle Dyer, who was bitten on live tv by a big white dog who had been rescued from a frozen river? That dog was screaming “Please back off!” but no one paid attention to his signals. I’ve embedded the video below along with my notes about all the communication signals the dog is offering to get a little bit of space.
0:01 – The dog is already licking his lips and flicking his tongue. These are both recognized dog stress signals. There are 8 tongue flicks in seven seconds. This dog is screaming “I’m uncomfortable!”
0:08 – Pause here. Look at how tight the collar and leash are on the dog. You’ll also see another tongue flick here. Also notice how the news anchor’s hands never leave the dog’s head. She’s all over him, never giving him any space.
0:16 – Now we’re getting a tongue-flick marathon. There are seven flicks in rapid succession, right before she leans into his face.
0:21 – With no means of escaping the woman in his face (he’s backed up into his owner’s legs and the leash and collar are too tight for him to move away), he bites the anchor.
Both Mr. Gibbs and the dog above were trying to communicate, trying to get people to give them some space. Both of their signals were either missed or ignored. I’m not drawing parallels between the Mr. Gibbs and the dog that bit Kyle Dyer — other than both of them had their stress signals ignored.
What I do know for certain, however, is that if Mr. Gibbs signals are ignored (or not understood), at best he’s in for a pretty miserable life. At worst, he’ll get tired of being laid on, pinched on a prong collar, and hit in the head with a swing. He may start to ignore the 3-year old even more than he’s already ignoring her — and for that he may get labeled stubborn and then forced to interact. And when his signals are again ignored, he may escalate his signaling to something he hopes the humans can understand: a growl. Unfortunately, many growling dogs are punished, effectively taking the very form of communication away from them that worked.
Ignoring a dog’s signals puts the dog in an unacceptable position. They either resign themselves to their fate or they speak up about it. Both are unfortunate options for a dog.
And both positions are entirely preventable.