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Understanding Status Displays

Posted on 08/10/2014
Filed under: Behavioural Issues How Your Dog Thinks

corgi with crownI recently heard from a lady who was understandably very concerned about the “aggression” that her normally loving dog displayed toward other people, especially strangers. She was even considering have her dog put down as she had been told that nothing could be done to stop this behaviour. 

Her dog would appear to act in an inviting and calm manner, which anyone would interpret as the dog being 'friendly', so they considered that to approach the dog would be appropriate. The dog would even roll onto its back exposing it tummy, indicating a submissive nature. However, sometimes he was fine with some people but then he would snap at others; confusing indeed. There is little wonder that this owner believed all those who told her that this was dangerous and unpredictable behaviour, as it would appear so, but this is far from “unpredictable”,  once we understand what is actually happening and happily, my studies have provided a clear picture of the reason for this behaviour. 

Even though all domestic dogs are existing in our man made  world there are patterns of behaviour that that they clearly share with their free living cousins, such as the wolves of Yellowstone National Park, that give us all the clues we need to appreciate the reasons for such behaviour and more importantly, a guide of how to work with our own dogs to resolve these undesirable behaviours.

There is a simple rule that all group living animals, including our own, understand which is that 'movement creates submissiveness', which basically means that the one who can remain where they are while others are forced to come to it, is demonstrating a higher status. While we do not want to treat our dogs as being beneath us, we can take this reality and kindly include it in our routine to help our dogs understand that we are  responsible for 'everything pertaining to the group', not them. If we do not successfully demonstrate this, we will invariably see a display of undesirable behaviour in our dogs.

What is actually happening when a dog 'invites' attention in this way, whether it is laying on the floor with its belly exposed or sat on a favourite chair, is to ensure that the person, whether that is a stranger or returning family member, comes to the dog at this important time and if the person goes to the dog, then they have accepted that they are the ones to 'move', The dog interprets this as them having accepted this invitation to pay homage to the group leader; the dog.

It is important to bear in mind too that the arrival of any stranger must be given serious consideration by a dog as they have no understanding that this new stranger is not coming to stay permanently, which would alter the dynamic of the family group immediately. This is one reason that if someone is coming to my home for a short time, like a plumber or meter reader, they are  asked to simple ignore my dogs, as there is no reason for them to make any direct contact with my dogs. When you think of how often a postal delivery person gets nipped or bitten by a dog, it is usually because they have attempted  to 'make friends' with the dog, speak to the dog or even simply look at the dog, this is one reason that my own dogs are never between the door and the delivery person, that way, all stay safe.

With a dog that has started to snap or nip at people, it is essential the dog is given time to get used to the any new change to its normal routine and even if the dog chooses not to come to a stranger there is no problem here, as the dog will learn the most important lesson; that there is nothing to fear and therefore it will become acceptable to the dog to respond to the request to 'come'.

We can easily see this through the eyes of our dogs when we recall what it was like when the head teacher had sent for you to go to their office. Whatever the reason for the request, it would invariably be that the lower ranked individual (us) went to the domain of the higher ranked individual. Just as when people are awarded honours from the Queen, they have to go to her to receive a medal; she never pops round their house.

During any transition period, if when your dog is invited to come to you, it turns its head away, moves away or simply remains where it is without moving, avoid making anything of this just leave it a couple of hours before repeating the request. We have to make sure that our dog feels comfortable and safe enough to make the move and we must also respect the natural instinct that we all share of 'what's in this for me', and give them a really good reason to comply, which is usually a nice piece of something tasty; Request/Reward.

Please never fall into the mistake of thinking that your dog should do as you say just because you instruct it to do something, we want our dogs to choose to co-operate with us of their own free will - and happily.

When we repeat this pattern, we are making it very clear to our dogs that we are of higher status and can therefore take care of ourselves and them too and by removing any possible confusion in the life of our dogs we can ensure that they are able to relax and let go of any stress they may feel.

The dog that jumps up at people as they enter is also needing to check its role within the family group, it has just chosen to do this a different way, by getting the person concerned to give it attention, even if that attention is to scold the dog for jumping up. The person is speaking and giving the dog attention, which the dog translates as the person paying it homage, which in turn indicates the dog’s higher status. To resolve this we simply ignore all the dog’s attempts to get attention on its terms

As always with AB if we keep things simple then there can be no confusion or stress and as long as the human involved takes control of this situation, and the ritual greeting, by inviting the dog to come to them, then there will never be any doubt in the dogs mind as to who is in control and no problems will arise in this area.

Dogs, like us, make bad decisions when they are just reacting under pressure. By removing any pressure, with clear leadership signals, we can clear the way to clear thinking and correct decision making.

 Jan Fennell

8th October 2014