Mankind, Nature and Dogs
Understanding the dog’s world
A Dog is Man’s Best friend, but is Man a Dog’s Best Friend?
In the Prologue I offered a fictional, dreamlike story of how early man and wolf came together and from that special place in our history did flow the everlasting relationship between man and dog. I will return to that but first let’s get an idea of just how many dogs there are.
In 2012, the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that there were over 43 million [ 43,346,000] dog-owning households in the USA. That translated to over 36% of the total households in America. With an average of 1.6 dogs per household that came to the astonishing total of 62,926,000 dogs. In just one country!
It is therefore beyond doubt that millions and millions of people, of all ages, all around the world, understand what it is like to have a dog close to them. Likewise, those millions of dogs know what us humans are capable of. But of those millions of humans who have dogs in their lives, how many understand, really understand, the world of the dog?
In the next chapter after my Prologue, the Puppyhood chapter, I spoke of the circumstances that brought me into contact with Angela Stockdale of The Dog Partnership in Devon and how from that association I became aware of the three roles that dogs could be born into: mentor, monitor and nanny. How, generally speaking, out of every 50 dogs born there were just three carrying those roles, if ‘carrying’ is the correct description, and that the bulk of dogs born were straightforward pack members. Irrespective of the fact that we don’t normally own anything like the number that would constitute a natural pack of dogs in the wild, around 50 animals, that doesn’t alter the fact that when a puppy is born it’s social place, from a pack perspective, is hard-wired into the puppy.
I am indebted to Angela Stockdale for granting me permission to republish her descriptions of the mentor, monitor and nanny that are available on her website. In terms of man understanding the world of the dog, these descriptions are invaluable.
What is a Teaching Dog?
A Teaching Dog is a dog who has an instinctive desire to guide and support dogs in their learning canine communication.
A Teaching Dog helps other dogs develop their canine communication skills by displaying different body language to convey different messages. Such as lowering their heads and curving on approach as a polite way to introduce themselves. These essential etiquette skills are invaluable in preventing social issues.
A Teaching Dog teaches dogs canine etiquette to other dogs so they develop their communication skills as they go through the natural ageing process i.e. the transition from puppyhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood. At these essential times, their pupils develop their skills in canine communication to a high level, hence again preventing social issues.
A Teaching Dog has an instinctive desire to guide and support dogs who find communicating difficult. If a dog has an established social issue, a Teaching Dog will actively incite interaction with them in order to teach them how to relax and communicate with them. They will assess how the other dog feels and react accordingly. Keeping their distance if the dog is concerned and approaching thoughtfully when the dog relaxes. I say thoughtfully because that is really important to understand; they think about how to work with a dog.
When a Teaching Dog works, whilst there are some elements of instinctive body language, in the main they will consciously use appropriate body language for the specific situation. They will always maintain control of an interaction but will change their posture from assertive to more inviting in accordance to the other dog’s behaviour.
On sighting the dog they are working with, they will first watch and assess them. This can be done from quite a distance with an experienced Teaching Dog. Eye contact is made but the eyes are averted intermittently whilst the Teaching Dog decides how assertive they need to be, or not as the case may be, with that particular dog. What follows from thereon is purely dependent on the other dog and that particular Teaching Dog’s way of working.
Do all Teaching Dogs teach in the same way?
No. Different Teaching Dogs have different teaching skills and different preferred roles. It is essential to recognise the role each particular Teaching Dog prefers to take. There are three primary Teaching Dog roles – Mentor, Minder and Nanny.
A Mentor is normally quietly assertive by nature. They rarely play unless flirting with the opposite sex. However, they generally build the strongest bonds with high ranking dogs of the same sex.
As a Teaching Dog they are passively dominant. They always meet a dog with assertiveness but never hostility. They tend not to use body language to relax a dog as such but often just their presence has a calming effect on most dogs anyway.
If working in a group, they watch from the sidelines and only become involved if absolutely necessary. Mentors can be quite lazy! They will support other Teaching Dogs where needed, showing by example what to do in difficult situations if the other Teaching Dog is not coping.
Other dogs reaction to Mentors vary. Some dogs take great confidence in a Mentor and whilst not necessarily submissive towards them, they are very respectful. Some dogs find a Mentor intimidating and will avoid making contact with them.
A Minder is totally different to a Mentor in their interaction with dogs they are teaching. When a Minder meets another dog, they actively approach with the intent of interacting with them. A Minder is also naturally assertive but not as strong as a Mentor. When they meet another dog, in the Teaching Situation, they assess the new dog as they approach and use appropriate body language in accordance to the other dog’s reaction to them.
They are more generally more demonstrative than a Mentor and will actively seek interaction within a few minutes of meeting a new dog. This does not necessarily mean that they invite play. If they feel the dog is not ready for that level of interaction, they will converse with them in a more subtle manner.
If the other dog is worried but shows signs of being ready to rush at them, the Minder will stand firmly with their head side on to the dog. Eye contact is made intermittently as the Minder ascertains whether the other dog is calming down or intending to rush at them.
They can stand firm and openly display assertiveness if they need to. Once ‘control’ of the situation has been achieved, a Minder will generally incite status based activities from the other dog. These can be by marking then walking away allowing them to investigate their scent. Or they may invite the other dog into a status game, often instigating a chase.
If the other dog shows signs at trying to drive them away, the Minder will turn their head towards them and eye contact becomes stronger. They do not reposition the rest of their body. If the other dog shows signs of moving away, the Minder will totally drop their body language and move away. They will then reassess the other dog from a distance, before approaching again.
In a group situation, a Minder will monitor the group closely and interrupt any unsociable or unruly behaviour. They interrupt unacceptable behaviour by physically placing themselves between the dogs and will remain there until the tension has reduced. When the dogs in question have calmed down, the Minder will usually walk away and monitor them from a distance. They tend not to interact with the other dogs after harmony has been restored. In effect, they police a group.
Other dog’s reaction to a Minder is either respectful or challenging. Most dogs recognise a Minder as a strong dog and usually respect them. Sometimes polite status games may be played when they first meet.
As the Minder does not naturally command respect in the way a Mentor does, some dogs who have limited canine communication skills and/or adolescents can challenge them. Once the dogs have learned how to ascertain status in a polite manner from the Minder, they will usually then settle and look to the Minder for guidance in future situations.
The Nanny is the most amazing of all the Teaching Dogs. Although not their preferred choice, a strong Nanny can take the role of a Minder or Mentor if they need to. They are unique.
They are extremely generous dogs and are at their happiest when everyone else is happy, including other Teaching Dogs. They work very differently to a Mentor and a Minder.
They not only relax a dog who is uncomfortable or anti-social but they also help relax any Mentor or Minder in a group. Few Mentors get overly stressed in a teaching situation but Minders tend to take their job quite seriously, unless really experienced and so can become tense when working.
If they see another Teaching Dog, usually a Minder, showing stress they will also consciously use body language to reduce their tension as well.
Being happier working on a one to one basis or in a group is down to each dog’s personal preference. Although, of all the Teaching Dogs they are more likely to be equally happy in either situation.
When meeting a new dog, they will observe from a distance before making a thoughtful approach. Thoughtful being the operative word as everything a Nanny does is done with thought. The Nanny tends to assess a dog in more depth than the other Teaching Dogs. This means they often take longer in their approach. They rarely communicate with instinctive responses but with conscious body movements, using the eyes in particular, when conversing with another dog.
If a dog is confrontational with them, they will remain strong in their attitude but will incite play, in particular chase games. The game of chase can be a challenge, like the ‘Chase me Charlie’ game children play. Or a game of chase can be used to loosen up a dog who is so stressed they feel unable to move.
The Nanny knows exactly what distance to keep between them and the other dog. If they feel the other dog is too close for comfort or who is becoming too unsociable, they will stop and face the dog and take control again. Once they see the other dog is more relaxed, they will stop running and attempt to converse with them again. They repeat this routine until the other dog stays relaxed and sociable with them.
In a group situation, initially they will monitor from the edge of the group and then actively walk up to each dog individually and check they’re comfortable. This also gives the other dogs confidence as they know the Nanny is there for support should they need it.
Once they have seen every group member, including any other Teaching Dogs, they will then focus on the dogs that feel the most uncomfortable, this is not necessarily the dog who shows outwardly unsociable behaviour.
It could be a dog who becomes withdrawn because they are so stressed. Sometimes they will simply follow and walk alongside a dog who is not comfortable and other times they may invite play. It totally depends on the other dog and how, at that moment, they are feeling. The Nanny may walk alongside another dog and then invite play.
The Nanny will resolve conflict by approaching in a calmer manner than a Minder usually to interrupt the unsociable behaviour. Not necessarily by physically splitting the dogs. They may bark and then play bow and/or literally pat them on the shoulder to attract their attention. A strong confident Nanny will split if they need to but prefer to resolve any conflict by mediation.
When other dogs meet a Nanny, if they have a good command of the canine language they will greet them in friendly, but not submissive manner. A Nanny’s first response to a dog displaying aggression, is to increase the distance between them. But they do not turn their back on the other dog. This would show vulnerability.
They will move away at an angle and stand sideways on to the other dog. This indicates to the other dog that whilst they are not offended and are not going to retaliate, they are also not intimidated. Initially, this can be most confusing for the other dog.
A Nanny excels at being able to recognise signals of stress in other dogs. They will only advance towards the dog to the level the other dog can cope with. As the dog learns that the Nanny will not be coming close enough to pose a threat to them, they begin to relax. In time, the other dog will take confidence from the Nanny and will look to them for guidance in difficult situations.
Is a Teaching Dog the same as the Alpha, Beta and Omega in a wild dog pack?
No. The Teaching Dog is unique to the dog world. Whilst a Mentor is usually a dog of natural Alpha status, an Alpha is not necessarily a Mentor. In fact, many dogs of natural Alpha status can not or do not want to teach. They can not be compared to wolves or any other wild dogs. Teaching Dogs working together are not a pack. They can not be compared to dogs living in a group at home. Some Teaching Dogs do not want to work together with their own group but enjoy working with dogs they know from another family. All Teaching Dogs have equally important roles. There are situations where a Mentor is better able to resolve a conflict and another time a Nanny may be the better dog to the resolve the situation.
How can I find out more about these amazing dogs?
It may sound that it is impossible for dogs to consciously work in this way, particularly the Nanny. Seeing is believing and even then it is almost unbelievable. I run a four day introductory course on the world of the Teaching Dog. On these courses, participants can bring along their own dog for assessment. But it is important to understand and to recognise that this is not whether your dog can teach but do they want to.
You will see experienced Teaching Dogs in practice. And also those who are at the beginning of their career. I can not, of course, guarantee how they will work as I have not met their pupils yet! You will learn about the Teaching Dog as an individual, see experienced and apprentice Teaching Dogs working on video as well where you can study their conscious body language in different teaching situations.
At this first level, we will cover identifying Teaching Dogs and offering them the right learning ground to develop their natural skills. You can not train a Teaching Dog. A Teaching Dog is born a Teaching Dog. It is dependent on their life’s experiences and living environment as to whether they develop to their full potential. Many allegedly aggressive dogs are actually true Teaching Dogs. In domestic society such dogs have not been able to do what they were born to do; help other dogs without the interference of people trying to tell them how to speak their own language. Their life of frustration has resulted in aggression. Once given the time and freedom to develop their natural teaching skills, any aggressive behaviour disappears.
Time to stop talking and start listening to the real teachers – The dogs themselves
Thus one of the key learning aspects that Angela offers us humans is that dogs (and horses) learn most effectively when being taught by other dogs (and horses). This was observed countless times by me when Pharaoh was working as a minder teaching dog and using his natural pack instinct to teach puppy dogs their social skills and breaking up squabbles between dogs.
Before moving on, some closing words from Angela.
I consider myself so lucky for dogs alone to have been my teachers. I learnt from watching how my own dogs responded to another dog’s body language and vice versa their language. Watching, learning and working with Teaching Dogs was the only way I knew. Seeing how these special dogs change the lives of less fortunate dogs, who never had the opportunity to really understand how to communicate with their own species.
I was and always will be in awe of a Teaching Dog’s ability consciously to adapt their body language in accordance to how the other dog was feeling. The result being that they could relax nervous dogs but at the same time maintain control of a problem situation. Remember, dogs talk dog far better than we do.
It came as quite a shock to me when I learnt about other approaches. It seemed foreign for people to have so much input in resolving what were described as ‘ behavioural’ issues. For me, working with these dogs was far more than resolving a behavioural issue. It was about improving the quality of lives of dogs who were not coping with everyday life. If they found dogs or people worrying, sometimes this was shown in displays of aggression. It is important to understand, these dogs were not aggressive, they simply displayed aggressive behaviour.
How on earth to follow that, you might be wondering?
Very simply! By recognising that as much as we have had dogs in our lives, for thousands of years, we do not understand their world, how they truly think, what they feel, and we probably never will.
2,958 words Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover includes Copyright © 2005 Angela Stockdale