Take a breath, breathe – dogs understand, breathing is communication. Breathing is one of many ways in which dogs communicate with each other. Dogs also observe how humans breathe. By taking the time to learn a little about this natural form of communication, you can increase your understanding of dogs, be more aware of your own state of being, and improve your ability to support / direct your dog.
Think about how we humans react to stimuli – good and bad stress, our breath and breathing patterns are immediately affected. The only time we control our breath and breathing patterns are when we are consciously working to do so. The balance of the time our brain controls our breathing patterns. Your dog hears and observes your breathing to assess how you are really feeling – happy, relaxed, joyful, frustrated, anxious, tense, fearful – all emotions are reflected in how we breath – so too for a dog.
A Few Examples Breathing as Communication
A dog that is very relaxed, having had his/her meal, and exercise may lie down, take a breath and expel that breath as a sigh indicating a relaxed, comfortable satisfied state.
A dog that is anxious will exhibit early warning symptoms of that anxious state – one of those signs is an increase in rate and intensity of breathing which, if not checked, will progress from open-mouth breathing to heavy panting and may also include anxious pacing.
Do you have a dog that exhibits aggressive-reactive behavior? Have you seen your dog go suddenly stock-still? Have you felt the silence, the absence of breath - inhaled or exhaled? That sudden stiffness and absence of breath is a sign that your dog is about to act/react. You have split seconds to provide direction to your dog to de-escalate the situation, and prevent a dog fight. If you are like most people in this situation you won’t realize that you are inadvertently directing the situation to culminate in aggression…
You have probably stopped breathing – you are holding your breath.
Your hands are probably clenched - your mind and body are tense.
Your dog is following your direction.
It’s time to breathe – you have split seconds to start the process of de-escalation, breath. Release the tension.
A dog that is anxious may yawn – you can help calm that dog by yawning and then taking a few dep breaths. Dogs also use yawning as a communication tool to help other dogs calm – you can help calm the pack by taking a few deep breaths, and making sure you release all tension in your own body.
True leadership requires that the person leading be willing, and able to be that thing first that they want the other being (in this case your dog) to be.
A Few Simple Breathing Exercises For You and Your Dog
Start by taking a deep breath. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth - close your eyes and think of nothing but that breath while breathing in and out.
Notice how you feel - did you forget about everything else for those split seconds? Did you forget to be worried, did you find peace for a second?
If you did the exercise properly, you attain a state of grounded calm – at least for those seconds you were focused on that deep breath. If you did not then breath again - in through your nose and out through your mouth, this time close your eyes as you breath. Now did you feel grounded?
When you breathe as per my instruction above you are, for those seconds grounded - your own anxiety, anger, frustration, tension, anticipation of ‘bad’ behaviour is forgotten. Everything changes for that second - your body language, your thoughts, your eyes, your face and even your scent may change. Tension is released. In that moment of that breath you become what you want your dog to be - grounded, relaxed, rational, calm and comfortable, confident and logical.
Stand or sit near your dog and breathe as instructed above. While you breathe observe your dog.
Did your dog look at you?
Did your dog's ears move – make sure you observe carefully – the movement of the ears may be very subtle, very slight?
If yes to one or both of the above your dog was listening!
Try doing this when you are at one end of a room and your dog is at the other. See if your dog looks at you or if his/her ears move just the slightest. If your dog is calm your dog will hear you breathe.
Did your dog come to see you when you breathed?
Did you observe your dog relax after you breathed?
If you have a dog that is currently in an anxious state your dog may not 'hear' you the first time you do this. Repeat the exercise, breathe deeply.
Daily Life with Your Dog - Use Breathing to Communicate and Direct
When you are about to give your dog a direction - i.e. 'sit', take a deep breath before you direct your dog with the command 'sit' or before you use a hand signal for sit.
After the command is given take another deep breath.
Don't repeat the command.
Just wait, don't speak - you can take another breath to reinforce and hold the command. By doing so you are exercising patience, self-restraint, self-awareness, self-discipline. You are quite, non-reactive, grounded, attentive, consciously observant and directive.
You are communicating logically.
You are being that thing that you want your dog to be – self-aware, self-disciplined, self-restrained, self-correcting and you are directing using one of the techniques a well-balanced dog use to direct another dog.
Now take this communication skill and apply it to every situation where you currently, or should be directing your dog.
Train yourself to do this consistently in all low-level situations. By doing so you develop a positive, reliable habit – your dog knows that he / she can rely on you, and that there is no need to escalate to more intense behavior. If you do encounter mid to high level situations you can use the same techniques to direct your dog to normalize.
Stay Connected, Cue Your Dog - Breathe
Stay connected with your dog. If your dog has a habit of barking at every sound, at the door bell, at a passerby. If your dog is tense when passing another dog cue your dog to relax before he/she reacts. Take a deep breath so your dog relaxes rather than stiffens.
Timing is everything - to support good timing you need to be a conscious observer. Breathe for your dog - concentrate on your breathing. Force yourself to breathe and clear your mind instead of anticipating and thereby directing your dog to do exactly what you don’t want. Listen to your dog's breathing and watch your dog's ears - if you hear breathing begin to intensify, if you see ears stiffen, it is time for you to take a deep breath, it's time for you to make sure you don't have any tension in your hands, your body, your mind. By doing so you are communicating and directing your dog to calm and still – you are leading by example. And you never said a word - natural wisdom, a dog's way.
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