National Geographic Kids chats to UK canine body language expert Sarah Whitehead to find out how we can better understand a dog's behaviour. Plus she gives some top tips on training our own pet pals...
NG Kids: Hi Sarah! So, we know you've worked with lots of dogs. Can you give us an example of a common thing dogs do and what it means?
Sarah: Well, an interesting one I think is tail wagging. Most people think when a dog wags its tail it means its friendly and happy - but, in fact, experts will tell you it's about scent communication. Dogs wag their tails to spread their scent around. So when a dog does this, it's basically saying, "I need to give you more information, and by wagging my tail I can communicate more about how I'm feeling."
NG Kids: Wow - we didn't know that! Are there any other common misunderstandings about dogs and their behaviour?
Sarah: There are. Another one is when humans think a dog feels guilty after being told off, because it lowers its head, puts its ears back and hunches its body. But actually, it is probably that the dog is feeling anxiety and confusion. When an owner gives their dog a hard stare and wags a finger, the dog will think, "I don’t understand why you're in this strange mood. The best thing I can do is keep out of the way and make myself as small as possible." Actually, when a dog misbehaves, it's much better to turn your back and walk away.
NGK: Do you find certain breeds of dog more difficult to read than others?
Sarah: Yes. The ones I find the most difficult to read are those that have a lot of fur or a lot of wrinkles. For example, Shar pei dogs are hard to read because they have lots of wrinkly skin, and so their facial expressions aren’t very clear. But as you get used to a dog, you start to pick up on subtle things and it becomes easier to read - in the same way you can get to know and understand a person better!
NGK: You must have some funny stories to tell about your work! Can you tell us any naughty things that dogs you've worked with have done?
Sarah: There are so many! I have a friend that trains guide dogs and sometimes, in training, dogs will go to where they want to go instead of where they are supposed to. For example, instead of heading to the newsagent, they’ll head to the butchers in hope of getting something to eat! It's those kind of things that make me laugh the most.
NGK: We hear that you work with cats, too. Are cats and dogs very different to work with? Which is easier?
Sarah: Dogs are much easier to train, because they tend to want to do things that make their owner happy. You have to be very careful when training cats - because if a cat doesn’t like how it's being trained, it will put its tail in the air, walk out the cat flap and visit your neighbour. Cat training sessions should be short and at the cat's own pace.
NGK - What advice would you give to our readers who want to be dog trainers when they are older?
Sarah: There are lots of good courses that you can find just by searching online. But what's most important is to just learn to watch dogs. Even if you don’t own a dog, head to the park and everytime you see a dog, watch it and question, "what are its ears doing? Why is its tail moving? How is it feeling? What is it trying to communicate?”. That's what’s really at the heart and soul of being a trainer!
NGK - We'll be sure to keep an eye on our canine chums, Sarah! Thanks for answering our questions!
Issue 97 of NG Kids, on sale 05 March, is our Pet Special! Read all about our pet pals and meet some amazing animals who've saved people's lives!