Happy wags or stress signals? People learn pooch lingo

Vermont Agency of Agriculture photo

by Sadie Ensana, Community News Service

Mica the Havanese has a reputation as her Essex neighborhood’s dog — folks love seeing her on walks, her human companion Kate Brown said. But Brown worries how Mica feels when crowded by kids.

“She lives with an old lady, and I don’t move that fast, so she won’t be used to you,” she said.

Brown was among 11 attendees who came to a town-sponsored dog obedience lecture Nov. 2 to learn more about why their furry friends act the way they do.

The Memorial Hall event featured Fairfax dog trainer Deb Helfrich, who taught attendees a lesson on “Dog Talk 101” that night. Helfrich has been a therapy dog handler since 1996 and the volunteer director of training and certification for Therapy Dogs of Vermont since 2005. She liked working with people just as much as dogs, so she started teaching classes through local recreation departments and launched Gold Star Dog Training in 2011.

Brown said she wanted “to learn and get reminded of practices that will make me a better owner.”

A lot of being a good owner, Helfrich emphasized in her talk, is understanding your dog’s needs and knowing how they communicate. Helfrich made a point to note owners and dog lovers can often read a dog’s behavior inaccurately.

“What can seem like a happy, loving response is sometimes a stress indicator,” she said.

One of the most common misconceptions, Helfrich said, is the meaning of a dog wagging their tail. Most folks at the lecture seemed surprised to learn how much nuance there is to tail-wagging — and how it isn’t always a sign of friendliness.

During the lecture Helfrich explained the steps dogs typically go through before becoming aggressive: First they try to avoid conflict or leave the situation. Then they try to let people know they’re stressed before they enter the fight-or-flight mode.

That last step is when a dog might try to run away or bite someone. Wagging tails can either be categorized as a happy response or as a stress signal. The difference is in how high the tail is — low tails usually communicate stress, while high tails point to an excited pup. In a way, dogs take up these strategies as a form of self-care, said Helfrich. Another example she mentioned: Yawning is like a deep breath for a dog.

Helfrich also explained other miscommunications between dogs and their owners, such as hugging or holding eye contact with your dog.

When a person hugs a dog, the person is probably thinking, “I love this woofer,” said Helfrich. But the dog is more likely to feel threatened and claustrophobic about the embrace, she said. Holding strong eye contact can be interpreted the same way by a dog, who may see a person’s sustained look of adoration as a challenge.

Brown said the lecture helped her understand why Mica seems to snap at kids when they flock to pet her. And she’ll be ready to help them understand why, too.

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