Tori Collins of the Wekiva Forrest Animal Hospital talks to an audience at the Orange County Library about how to interpret dogs' signals and signs.
ORLANDO – If there’s a problem between man and dog, Tori Collins noted, it’s that they sometimes just don’t communicate very well.
Or, to be more precise, people simply don’t know how to read a dog’s body language.
“When dogs give us a signal and a sign, it’s very subtle, and we don’t see those signs,” she said. “So now the dog is going to change its body posture.”
But again, she added, the dog will do something to send a signal, and the owner, being a bit dense and not understanding dog language, ignores it altogether.
Not surprisingly, she added, the dog gets frustrated.
“The dog will send five or six signals and the person will be oblivious to it,” Collins said. “Finally, the dog growls, and what people do is you smack it on the head – and that’s totally inappropriate behavior.”
In fact, Collins said if people leave their dog at home and go out to dinner and a movie, and then come home to find their pet has soiled the carpet, never respond by hitting the dog to teach it a lesson.
“What we need to do is take a newspaper and hit ourselves on the head and say we should have dealt with it before it happened,” she said.
Most pet owners are not aware of how often they set up dogs to make mistakes, and then punish them – even though the dog will have no clue why it’s being punished. All they understand at that point, she said, is that they get punished when they owners come home. They’re not likely to remember having stained the carpet three hours earlier.
“We have to make sure we didn’t set them up and then get angry,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who would leave a five-year-old all alone in the house while they’re at work all day. And if we’re watching ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and the dog poops behind the couch, we won’t notice it until we smell it.”
Collins has some experience in this field. She works at the Wekiva Forrest Animal Hospital in Sanford, which provides veterinary services. Collins has worked closely with dogs, and knows how to pick up their signs and signals. Too many dog owners, she said, need a strong refresher course on how best to understand their animals’ needs.
Collins gave a presentation today on “Dog Training Made Easy” at the Orange County Library System’s South Creek Branch on Deerfield Avenue. Rather than send your dog to obedience school, she said, dog owners should be the ones getting the instructions.
When a dog growls, for example, it may not be because it wants to bite someone, but because it’s being ignored after all those clear signals it sent, Collins said.
“It probably told you 15 times not to do something and you didn’t get it,” she said. “They probably use a number of visual signals before they do a verbal one like growling.”
The reason dogs send signals, she added, is the same reason people do – because they’re stressed out and want some relief.
“Dogs have stressors in their lives, too,” she said. “We have to take into account those things that stress them. People wonder why cats hate going into carriers. Well, do we take cats anywhere? Only to get shots and then come home. So they know if they get into a carrier they’re going to go get a shot.”
The same is true with dogs, she said.
“If your dog is stressed and not acting normal, it probably has a pretty valid reason to be behaving that way,” she said.
That’s true, for example, even if people take their dogs for a ride in the car and the dog makes a mess in the back seat. Don’t automatically blame the dog, she said – try to figure out why the dog got upset.
“Was it her fault she pooped in the car, or was her stomach upset?” she asked. “Was she afraid? You need to give them attention and treats, and get the dog accustomed to riding in the car first.”
People need to understand a dog’s communication signals, Collins said — and a lot of times they interpret the signal incorrectly. Yawning, for example, doesn’t always mean a dog is tired.
“Dogs actually yawn to tell other dogs to ‘Relax, it’s okay,’ “ she said. “Or dogs will reach over and pluck at the grass, not because they want to eat it, but to tell other dogs ‘It’s okay, I won’t attack.’ They’re talking to each other. All of those are calming signals.”
They also give off signals when they want to play, she added.
“They bring the ball,” she said. “They bump you with their nose. They bow down and put their butts in the air. They’re saying, ‘I want to play with you.’ “
Dogs are afraid, she said, when they growl, crouch down, or drool. When they raise the hackles on their back, “That can be fear or aggression,” she said.
When puppies lick people’s mouth, she said, that’s actually a sign of fear.
“They’re saying ‘Oh, don’t eat me, don’t eat me,’ “ she said. “It’s a submissive signal.”
And when dogs feel anxiety, they pace.
“There’s dogs that will spin in circles when they’re nervous,” Collins said. “They don’t have an outlet, so they spin and spin.”
When interacting with dogs, try to avoid direct eye contact, she said.
“A good way to communicate with a dog — that we tend not to do — is to avert our eyes when we talk to them,” she said. “Don’t look at them directly.”
Likewise, let a dog come to you, rather than the other way around, she said.
“Just get down on the ground with the dog and don’t interact with them,” she said. “Instead, just say ‘Oh, look, this is interesting,’ and the dog will come over to you and then you can start to interact with him, and they won’t feel threatened. When you’re interacting with a dog, you don’t want to put pressure on it to react.”
She encouraged people to rely on positive, rather than negative, reinforcements for a dog’s behavior. In the same way that adults get pay raises and children get an allowance, dogs need to be given a treat to reward good behavior.
“That’s why what we use 99 percent of the time when we train dogs is positive reinforcement,” she said.
Physical punishment, she said, is the worst mistake.
“If we come home and the dog has crapped on the floor and we spank it, does the dog know what it did?” she asked. “That was three hours ago. It doesn’t know.”

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