DogSpeak: Scratching, translated

When a dog scratches, owners often scratch too! We scratch our head wondering what’s causing our dog to itch. Is it fleas? Does he have a skin irritation? Maybe allergies?

Any of the above can cause your dog to becoming itchy, resulting in some scratching. Stress, frustration, or excitement can also cause a dog to scratch. It’s highly unlike there’s actually an itch related to the scratching at this moment, rather it’s a displaced behavior. I see a lot of scratching particularly from young puppies as they explore, try make sense of, and acclimate to their new world.

German Shorthaired Pointer demonstrating The Scratch

Have you ever tried to coax your dog into something he doesn’t feel confident doing? For some dogs it’s walking up and down stairs. Often people will use a syrupy sweet voice to try again and again to motivate their dog to do whatever it is that he is nervous about. The pup does a lot of head titling as he listens to the owner babble words of encouragement, and then he sniffs the ground and/or scratches.

I looked all over to try to find a video, but fell a bit short this week in finding a good match. Instead, I will share with you a story about a puppy that I just trained with, Andy. Andy is a high energy, bounce off the walls, Weimaraner puppy, approximately 16 weeks old.

We were working with Andy on the behaviors sit and down. Andy didn’t blink an eye while I lured him into a sit. He earned quick reinforcement from me (“Yes,” followed by a tasty crumb), and was feeling confident offering the behavior.

Luring Andy into a down didn’t come as easily. I couldn’t verbally explain, “All right, Andy, just relax; our next training goal here to is get you to drop to the ground onto your belly. Ready?”

Well, without an understanding the end game, and never having been lured before, Andy was a bit tentative. He grew a bit stressed or frustrated. As my lure hand slowly moved towards the ground, Andy popped up, sat down and itched at his collar, and then sneezed.

I thought, “OK, I’ll try one more time. I’ll just tweak it a bit by going slower.” The same thing occurred. As I attempted to lure Andy into a down, he popped up, offered a head turn, sat down and started scratching.

“I hear you loud and clear Andy!” Being an astute dog listener, I knew Andy was letting me know, “This is stressing me. I don’t get it!” As a result of his dog talk, young Andy and I simply broke down our overall training goal down into a few smaller steps.

I revamped my lesson and made it a bit more clear for Andy. Some pups don’t think twice and just follow a lure anywhere it goes. Andy, however, needed me to help him feel more comfortable during this particular behavior. Well, within three minutes, Andy was happily following my lure from a sit to a down and was confidently engaged in our training session. Go, Andy!

Andy was one more reminder that we have to listen to truly understand our dogs. With a dog like Andy, owners in a puppy session will often say, “He’s too distracted. He’s not into this. He’s being stubborn.”

When in reality, Andy was simply calling out for some more tutoring and instruction. This is why it’s so important for dog trainers and owners to really understand the vocabulary of dogs.

With this understanding and knowledge, owners will be better able to not only understand their dog, but research and use appropriate training techniques. If a professional trainer does not understand the less overt signs of dog stress and general vocabulary, it’s time for a new trainer!

What if the trainer’s response to Andy’s behavior was, “He’s trying to be dominant and to control this situation?” How do you think the rest of the lesson would’ve gone for Andy and the trainer? How do you think a trainer who misread Andy would’ve left Andy’s owners feeling about his overall temperament and behavior?

Giving owners a deeper understanding of dog vocabulary and body language will clear up a lot of confusion, frustration, and anxiety and create even stronger bonds between people and their pooches. So bark up and teach people Dogspeak!

Looking for more ways to better understand and communicate with your dog? Check out all of Colleen’s DogSpeak columns…