Canine Sign Language

Canine Sign Language
By Chris Jones

You know your dog doesn’t always understand your every word but he is very perceptive of your intonations and body language. Many dogs have an extensive vocabulary of words they seem to understand. Eye contact has been long known to be one of the ways dogs communicate with each other and with mankind. But did you know that one of the most important ways you communicate with your dogs is with your hands? Obedience people have known this for a long time. Often trainers start with vocal commands and later use only hand signals to evoke the same responses.

What do your hands say for you? How your puppies learn to communicate with other humans in the future may be conveyed by your hands today. For example, if you only pick up your puppies to put them into a crate or pen, they might come to associate hands coming towards them as an unpleasant experience. If your hands pull at the puppies or hastily yank them up, they may become frightened of being handled.

We know you would never consider striking a dog or puppy. That is never necessary if you teach your puppies signs of displeasure they understand. This would be eye contact body language and vocal intonations. An appropriate loud “no” and confinement is probably the only correction you will ever need. Your puppies want to please you. Even an independant puppy knows you are alpha dog or leader and will follow your lead. Most people know that rough handling or corporal punishment can make a puppy “hand-shy.” Apparently, not all breeders subscribe to that promise. One breeder confessed that her young puppy had a permanent head tilt due to a smack she had given him for some annoying behavior. (I believe it was barking.) Wouldn’t it have been so much more sensible just to pick that puppy up and love him or distract him with a toy? The same breeder also stated she had the cure to stop stool eating in her kennel. I asked her what that secret might be, as a lot of people would really like to know what the cure was. She then told me she “hit them (the dogs) over the head with the pooper scooper.” I waited for the punchline. When there wasn’t one, I shook my head in disbelief. Even though stool eating is a gross and distressing habit in many dogs, the extended hand signal was the pooper scooper in this case. Wouldn’t it be better to loudly say “no” and confine the puppy/dog instead of striking him with a hand or an object that could cause harm? Are these the type of messages we want to send to puppies/dogs? What are the signals you are sending to your puppy or dog? Do you want them to duck or flinch when they see you coming? Are you inadvertently making your puppies hand shy?

Are your hands gentle and kind? Do you slowly reach for puppies, supporting their body weight as you would with a baby? Puppies need support for their heads and bodies. We often see people use a tail or even a chin as a handle to pick young dogs up. If you must do this, always have one hand under the chest to avoid a broken tail or jaw. We have personally witnessed a young dog being admitted to an emergency clinic with a dislocated elbow/shoulder due to incorrect handling. The youngsters in the family had used the dog’s forelegs as handles and the dog was in excruciating pain. Always use your open hand to grasp the dog just under the ribcage behind the elbow to help distribute the body weight. This method is much preferred if you must lift a dog by the front end. Remember to either grasp the upper foreleg where it connects into the chest at the elbow and hold securely against the ribs or put your thumb and hand just behind the front legs for extra support when lifting. Then as quickly as possible hold the dog close to your body or provide as much undercarriage support as possible, so as not to injure elbows, legs or shoulders. Children should be taught the correct methods of lifting and holding pets.

Are you always in a hurry? Do you reach abruptly for the nearest appendage? Do you grab him and jar him onto a table top? Do you toss him casually onto the floor or into a pen when you are finished with him? Have your puppies become accustomed to harsh treatment or rough handling? Do they cower from human contact? Do they run from people instead of towards them? Do you have the time and patience necessary to raise and train well-adjusted puppies? (If not, consider buying an older trained puppy, or maybe possibly another pet, such as a cat, who is not as dependent on human interaction.)

Some breeders and exhibitors proclaim their love of their breed with words but their actions speak much louder than they do. Next time you are at a dog show, observe how people interact with their dogs. Go behind the scenes, to the grooming areas and see people’s set-ups. You will see another side of many people. Whereas at ring side you see the best “salesman face,” you may see first hand just a glimpse of how the puppies are treated at home. Are puppies/dogs treated with respect and kindness? Are they regarded as “inventory?” How a puppy ultimately matures and responds to people can readily be traced to early experiences in many cases. Bonding between puppy/dog and humans is facilitated by a soft touch, soft voice and a lot of patience.

Shelties are sensitive and perceptive creatures, you can bet they know exactly how and where they stand with their breeder-owners. In most instances, it can be readily observed that dogs/pups establish their own place in the pack or pecking order of the house/kennel. Puppies should be held close and of course they need as much cuddling and love as you can provide, also.

Do your hands tell the dogs that they are only there for your whims and pleasure? Do your moods and schedules come before the needs of the puppies/dogs? Do they only get out of their pens or crates to get on the grooming table? Do they only feel a pat when they stack correctly? Are your puppies getting adequate hands on attention?

Do you ever take time to massage ears? Or do you only look at ears if there are any signs of trouble? Do you only probe bodies for fleas or ticks or do you take time for massaging and stroking dear old friends? Do you take time for routine health and skin inspections or do you only handle your dogs to demat or bathe them?

Do your eyes tell your dogs you adore them? Do your words tell them you love them? Would you like them to? Make a little extra time each day. As little as 15 minutes per day per dog. Do some “one on one” bonding. If you have a puppy, gently turn him over every day in your lap. Do this until he likes and accepts it. Then open his mouth daily. Feel all of his toes. Pet his tummy and gently stack him on the floor at first. Later, a few minutes at a time, on a table is enough. Remember to make your puppy feel loved and secure. A confident puppy is a well adjusted puppy. Too much too soon has ruined many a promising puppy. Don’t be a stage mother and push puppies. They develop at their own speed, not yours.

Take time to analyze your approach towards puppies/dogs. Perhaps touching and handling of your dogs and a little TLC will possibly save you time and effort in the long run. What does your dog hand language say to your dogs? What does your dog hand signs say about you? Remember, a gesture is like a picture, it is worth a thousand words! Let your sign language speak for you and also speak well of you!