Has your dog been behaving oddly? A ready reckoner to understanding canine gestures
The dog has a specific body language — and learning it is to open your eyes to a completely new world
The United Negro Colleges Fund has as its motto: "The mind is a terrible thing to waste."
Even more terrible, I feel, is wasting the heart. The heart needs exercise to expand, to be healthy as it were. You need to exercise your compassion and feelings everyday; and the most effective aerobic exercise is to empathise with creatures not of your species that have to live at your mercy in a world in which they have less and less of a role to play — except to be used and eaten.
I know people who refuse to believe that one animal is different from the other in personality, that animals feel pain, fright, regret, sorrow, anger, love, joy, rage, even boredom. That they have moods, that they talk and weep and remember things that have been done to them.
Let's start by trying to understand the animal that lives with us most commonly, the dog. It has a specific body language — and learning it is to open your eyes to a completely new world. I went to Mussourie once to address a school. I was staying with a man who had a Doberman. As I entered the gates of his house, I saw the dog tied at a distance, and told the owner, who had come with me from Delhi, that the dog was telling him that he had hurt his foot.
The owner laughed. At that distance, he said, one could not even see the dog properly.
We arrived at the house and the owner's wife informed him that their dog had stepped on glass that morning and wouldn't let anyone near it to clean the paw.
The owner recounted the story several times, but it did not seem at all unusual to me. Would understanding Marathi or Telegu be unusual, if one had spent time learning it?
Let me give you a few easy lessons in the language — and once you master it, you will find your third eye, the eye of knowledge and compassion and curiosity about their world:
- Dogs purr when they are content. Their favourite route to nirvana is not being scratched behind the ears — which, incidentally, irritates a good many — but in the small hollow where the neck meets the chest marked by a raised tuft of hair. If you gently rub round this tuft, you may hear a deep low noise, halfway between a snuffle in the nose and a growl. That s happiness talking.
- Don't look a dog in the eye. It is a direct macho challenge. If it belongs to you, it will look away immediately. But if you are introduced to someone else's dog and, in the process of patting him, you see him staring into your eyes, back off immediately or you will get nipped.
- Tail wagging is not always a sign of happiness. Different positions of the tail mean different things. Most of the time the wag is a sign of nervousness or apprehension. For instance, if you call out suddenly to a sleeping dog, the immediate response is a tail thump. It means it has been startled. If the dog senses you are going to scold it, you get the same low tail wag? Have you noticed that if you call out to a stray dog, it will stop and give a low tail wag. It signifies nervousness — what will you do to me if I come closer? A high, stiff tail wag, especially if it is accompanied by sneezing, means the dog is ready to pick a fight.
- When you raise your voice or scold it, the dog puts its ears down, picks them up again, comes to you and tentatively makes a small gesture, as if to put a paw out. This is surrender; the dog has understood your message. Don't push your scolding now.
- Sometimes when you command your dog to do something — sit down, come here, sit up, go away — he will start scratching himself furiously (for instance if you have guests and the dog strays into the room and you want it to leave). Don't bother to look for ticks or mites, or even a localised infection. Your dog simply does not want to do what you have said — but doesn't have the nerve to refuse outright. So it's buying time. Don't press your command unless it is vitally necessary.
Sometimes, when you are sitting or lying down, you will see your dog coming towards you and then, in advance, he will start scratching himself. It wants to come nearer but is not sure of the reception. If you make the next move by calling out, or by walking up and patting it, the scratching will stop immediately.
- When a dog wants to play, it will lower his front legs, stretch out its body and yawn.
- How does a dog say, "I love you"? It will yawn widely, sticks its tongue out in an imaginary lick, closes its mouth with a 'patchak' sound and looks away. Try responding with the same.
- Sometimes you will find a grown-up, well-mannered dog suddenly defecating for no reason in your bedroom. It could be a sign of illness — but rarely. The usual reason is that, for a period of time now, you have paid no attention to the dog — maybe there is a new baby in the house or a spate of guests — and it's feeling unloved and unwanted. This is the most startling attention getting device that it can think of to tell you that it needs affection. Don't respond with punishment but with extra attention.
- When your dog doesn't understand an alien noise, or he sees a new object, it asks for clarification by tilting his head slightly to one side.
- When you scratch or pet a supine dog and stop a few minutes later, the dog might make the following gesture: Raise a paw and bend it in the air. It means, "Do it again." It could also raise the paw and pull it across its face. It means the same thing. But sometimes, while you are scratching it behind the ear or near the face, it will bring up the paw and try to gently push your hand away. It means — "I like being scratched, but could you get lower down, please?"
- Sometimes when you are getting ready to go out, the dog sits on your clothes, hovers round the bathroom and dressing table. When you start moving, it will make low dives at your ankles. All its saying is don't go. Instead of scolding, find — as you would for a child — something of interest to divert its attention.
- Dogs roll over for two reasons. One is complete submission. This may be accompanied by a little bit of urination. The second is, in their sleep. A dog that sleeps on its back is truly secure and content with its world.
- Not all dogs fall sick because they have an infection. I had a Pomeranian in my house that developed 105 degree temperature, limped when it saw people, but walked perfectly otherwise, and didn't eat for days. All of it turned out — after a series of tests — to be attention getting devices. She grew up as a single dog, suddenly found herself in a house of dogs and had to compete for attention in the only way she could — by falling sick. Over-excitement or fear or insecurity will sometimes even produce fits.
Empathy develops with knowledge.
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