Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Five subtle signs of fear in dogs often missed by humans: sniffing the ground

This week I'm focusing on five signs of fear in dogs that are usually missed by humans.
Yesterday's blog talked about Averting their eyes and Shifting their body away from the source of fear.
Today's topic is sniffing the ground.

Number 3: Sniffing the ground
Dogs sniff the ground and that’s just part of being a dog, right? No, not exactly.
Sure, there are lots of occasions when a dog is sniffing the ground simply to sniff — to pick up all the wonders of the world that we can’t experience like our dogs can because our noses just don’t work as good as theirs do.
A dog is also likely sniff a lot when he’s figuring out where to go potty.
But, a dog will also employ sniffing as an avoidance tactic.
Think of it like realizing you and the world’s most annoying neighbor are headed on a collision course down the neighborhood sidewalk, destined to make contact with another. But, you really, really hate this person and you really, really don’t want to get roped into some conversation with him or her. So you pick up your cellphone, pretend to dial a number and start talking to no one about your day. You get to pass by your neighbor with nothing more than a head nod and you didn’t even have to be rude about it.
Sniffing pretty much serves the same purpose for a dog. The dog has been placed in a situation that he’s totally uncomfortable with. Rather than feed that situation with his own energy, he diverts his energy and attention to something he’s familiar with and likes doing — sniffing. It mitigates the situation for him.
Other dogs are able to read this behavior and respond accordingly. Humans, however, tend to be clueless.
To figure out what your dog is sniffing for, look at the big picture. Is he showing any other signs of distress? Did he first avoid eye contact? Maybe he repositioned his body? What is his tail doing? His ears? What are the circumstances — did a stranger just approach you to talk?
Sniffing, like all of these subtle signs, is actually a calming signal. The dog is trying to calm himself with these behaviors, and these behaviors are also read by other dogs as part of their massive repertoire of non-verbal communications. That means they’re not just actions that affect the dog’s internal state, but communications meant to affect the actions and behaviors of others.
So, start listening.

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