There we were, making our way up the back staircase to my condo; Finn stopped and started to pace. I cheered him on and motioned a “go on up” hand gesture as he looked at me, then fluttered his grey eyebrows while he glanced towards the next landing; eager, yet tentative. My Lug halted a second time and as I swung my arms again to encourage him, Finn started panting.
The gravity of slower stair trips was there, three times, then, twice a day, everyday; even though I tried SO HARD to hide the emotional burden of what I knew less and slower treks meant for my admiringly independent Finn. Even in the midst of those deeply poignant moments, I knew exactly what I would say to a client if I were standing behind him or her and watching the same attempts with their own dog. So, instead of continuing to walk back and forth or swaying my arms around like I was in dance class; I sat on the stairs and waited. And, when I saw Finn place one paw on the first rung to move forward, I slowly followed in case he tripped. As calmly as possible, I whispered “good boy” as my Lug trucked ahead.
What I have learned from Finn’s senior-born anxiety, Gavin’s sidewalk standstills and years of helping nervous, fearful and worry-wart dogs is how a little adjustment in our own body language can make a big difference.
Hovering and large gestures often discourage sensitive dogs. If you have a dog who is terrified of going outside and you are standing directly over him in the doorway, and trying to coax him to join you; he is going to stop in his tracks. And, if you are trying REALLY HARD to get him moving along by emphatically waving treats around, he is going to sit against the closest piece of furniture for protection and drool is going to start flowing from his mouth in record amounts.
Instead, try to soften your shoulders back, crouch down (unless the dog has shown any aggressive tendencies) and stop moving around so much. Wild, flustered motion makes dogs anxious. If your pup sees uneasiness in your body language, it will likely make him more apprehensive.
Our furry best friends do us the favor of learning our language. I am continually mystified and in utter awe at our canines’ comp ability to understand us crazy humans; and, mesh into our technology-obsessed, multi-tasking, NOISY lives. Dogs watch our actions and attempt to tell us that they are uncomfortable, scared or completely at ease with their gestures, faint bodily adjustments, change in eye gaze or slight movement away or towards us.
Leaning forward while asking a dog to perform any task, even basic obedience like “come”, go to their “bed” or “sit” will often cause pups to pause. Why? Dogs are masters at visual communication and a hovering human screams “do not come into my space“; no matter how oogly-googly, sugary-sweet the words might be. The more delicate the dog’s personality, the looser and lower you have to be to encourage trust that steps towards you or the end goal behavior, even teensy strides, are welcome and rewarded.
Our tendency when we meet a new dog is to reach for his fur, to stroke his adorable head. Because, we as dog lovers, know that petting that four-legged whipper snapper would make US feel good. But, for hand-shy pups or pooches recovering from past trauma; taking a slow step away can be a very powerful tactic to build a bond and a much better way to help the dog learn to trust humans. For a scared dog who FINALLY or occasionally takes a step towards you, take one quiet step away from him and you will see his whole face soften and body relax.
Watching and listening to what our dogs need is not always intuitive. But, if you make a couple small adjustments in your posture and physical approach, your new dog interactions will be much more harmonious and your pup might give you the “YOU GET ME!” smile WAY more often.