I have just completed two rounds of my new workshop, where we work on body language. After having spent more than 32 hours, instructing on body language, I reminded myself to get better at using it myself. It’s really a journey for all of us, one of learning and discovery and I had an interesting learning opportunity last morning.

I had just finished teaching how to use body language to discourage a begging dog, while being polite and non-confrontational to the dog. Tiggy begs a lot and I am not good at discouraging her from doing it. So I reminded myself to be diligent about using my polite hand signals to let Tiggy know I was not appreciating her interaction with me. Since we rarely discourage Tiggy, she persisted. But yesterday, I was determined and my determination showed in my posture. I sat taller and my body got a bit stiff. I puffed up with determination. I was about to give myself a pat on my back, till I noticed Tiggy and realized what I had done to her!

…I reminded myself to be diligent about using my polite hand signals to let Tiggy know I was not appreciating her begging for food. I puffed up with determination. I was about to give myself a pat on my back, till I noticed Tiggy and realized what I had done to her!

Tiggy had completely frozen up. She just is that kind of a dog. She gets nervous easily and when she does, she freezes up very easily. And for a dog like Tiggy, it’s very easy to push her past that point, at which point, she will snarl and lunge. It took so little to freeze her up. Just a stiffening up of my body was enough to completely spook up my puppy. I instantly disengaged from it all and reassured her, at which point, she finally unfroze, got up, walked away a few steps, shook off all the stress and walked out to sit in the sun. Phew!

…Tiggy is just that kind of a dog. It’s very easy to push her past the point at which she will snarl and lunge…

Why might Tiggy be getting nervous so easily? Honestly, I do not have the definitive answer to that yet and with many dogs, the answer is not always evident. She, like most of our streeties, is a very exotic mix of a whole bunch of “who knows what” breeds. But a cursory examination of her phenotype (observable traits like body type and behaviour clusters) suggests that she is likely to have a whole lot of skittish breeds in her mix. That could be part of the explanation. Observe her street dog counterparts and you’ll see that some are incorrigibly friendly, some are cautious at first and some remain skittish for ever. Dogs are as individual as humans are, so that could just be it.

Tiggy also had a nasty start to life, kept in a cage for the first 7 months in terrible condition, malnutrition, poor hygiene and not enough loving human contact. She is now close to 7 years and people are surprised at this, asking if dogs can remember for so long. I don’t know if they can remember. But what I do know is that these early months are critical for brain growth and behaviour patterns to develop. Umpteen studies on several animals show that an animal being deprived of basic needs of good nutrition, adequate movement, sunlight, adequate safe sleep and warm care in the early stages of their life suffer from irreparable damage to the brain and indelible imprints on behaviour. I have no idea if that is the reason she is a nervous dog, but I will be surprised if that past had no impact on who she is and who she will continue to be.

…Tiggy had a nasty start to life. Umpteen studies on several animals show that an animal being deprived of basic needs in the early stages of their life suffer from irreparable damage to the brain and indelible imprints on behaviour…

I have given up trying to understand the why. She is who she is, just as I am who I am. I have anxiety disorders myself and therefore, find it easy to be kind on Tiggy and respect her seemingly irrational fears. I have given up trying to change her. I simply respect that she is skittish and am mindful of it whenever I can, I protect her from others when I can, I give guests long instructions on how not to cross her boundaries, I am aware of things that trigger her and to the best of my ability just avoid it. On the few occasions when she inadvertently gets exposed to something that gets her too excited or anxious, I have a few handy tools for her to use to calm herself down and cope. Yesterday, a good shake off and sun bathing seemed enough for her. Tomorrow, it may not be that simple. But I am prepared.

Consider what would happen if I was not aware of this nuance. If I had not seen what had happened to Tiggy and understood the connect between my own body language and her condition, I would have persisted even more, viewing her complete refusal to move as defiance. I’d then have met that with more stern messages which would definitely triggered the flight or fight response in her and she would have growled, snarled or lunged. To me, this would seem like her anger at me holding my ground. I would label her a bad dog and chose to escalate my “disciplining”, reclaiming perceived loss of power. Often these dogs bite and such dogs are then labelled as “aggressive” or having a “behavioural issue”.

…If I had not understood the connect between my own body language and Tiggy’s behaviour, I would have viewed her complete refusal to move as defiance. She would have growled, snarled or lunged. I would label her a bad dog…

Just by gaining a tiny additional bit of insight into body language based communication between dogs and humans, we gain an entirely different perspective and a whole new narrative emerges. Is this the right narrative? I’d be arrogant to claim it is. What I do know, however, is that I am heading in the right direction with my narrative and it has helped me gradually draw Tiggy out of whatever hell her mind was imprisoned in.

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At an adoption camp, looking for a home

Tiggy is a very special dog. She is not a “well behaved” dog, by conventional parameters. But what is it that we are labelling as “not well behaved” here? Is it her anxiety or her expression of her anxiety? Have we taken away her right to say that she has lost the ability to cope and sees no other way out? She was given a raw deal very early on and basic survival came to her because she opted for fight over flight, more often than not. It’s perhaps what kept her alive. It’s what makes her the perfect dog for me – she’s a survivor. She had it in her to survive that horror, her sister (Foxy) did not. I feel that my acceptance of her has been duly rewarded too. Do compare where she was and where she is. We are happy and that’s what matters, is it not?

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Back then, she would tuck herself into corners in the car
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Today, our car is one place she feels safest and most comfortable.
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Today, she feels bold enough to ask for things
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She feels safe and is able to relax much more

And before you go, Canine Essential 101 is being conducted one last time in 2018 in Bangalore. A few seats are open, if you want to gift yourself the ability to read and communicate with your dog better. Course details are available here.

About the Author
sindhoorchinna-3Sindhoor is a canine behaviour consultant, Galen myotherapist and educator in Bangalore, India. She is the country representative for Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE) and the founder of BHARCS, a premier canine education academy and Bangalore Hundeskole, a consultation service for holistic canine care.  Sindhoor also studies free ranging dogs in India and while she wears many hats, being mommy to two amazing dogs – Nishi and Tiggy, whom she considers her inspiration and her greatest teachers, is her favourite role.

 

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