Sarah Kalnajs is a behaviorist who does temperament testing on shelter dogs to figure out what the dog’s “behavior problem” is (assuming that this is why the dog was surrendered) so that the shelter can decide on whether the dog is adoptable, and by whom.
To be honest, it was quite stressful to watch because there is a lot of footage of dogs displaying anxious behavior.
The first part of this documentary is about dog communication and body language and there are many examples displayed by a variety of breeds. The signals are divided into the following categories:
Signals of Stress
Calming Signals or Appeasement/Non-Aggressive Signals
Distance Increasing Signals (which could lead to aggression)
Displacement Behaviors – some behaviors that dogs do when they are unsure what they should be doing
Ritualized patterns of behavior that are odd… eg, if the dog has been trained this way, or socially inept, or abused, or has OCD…
Sarah K makes it clear that we have to look at these signals in context rather than in isolation… We should look at the whole body and what else is happening.
Stress signals aren’t necessarily a bad thing or a cause for alarm. But it is important that we notice them because they are usually triggered by something that we (or the environment) are doing to the dog that may be invasive.
- Slow movement or lack of behavior IS a behavior. A dog may not move much; he may not appear scary or stiff, but if he doesn’t offer any behaviors, and shows little or no movement or interest in food or whatever we are doing, this can be interpreted as a stress signal.
- A wagging tail, contrary to what we have been taught as kids, DOES NOT mean that the dog is friendly and wants to be petted. If the tail is high up and wagging fast, this signals “arousal” and could in fact lead to aggression.The only time that it is safe to pet a dog is if his tail swishes around in slow big circles like a “windmill”. Not that this applies to Boogie, who doesn’t even have a tail.
- Distance Decreasing signals (eg, playbow, easy windmill tail, tongue flicking, relaxed posture, submissive grin, soft eyes, rollover etc.) – we should NEVER punish these signals or the dog might stop offering them. Sarah Kalnajs also says that we should also never punish a “growl” because the dog will then skip the growl and go straight for the bite. (We think that in a previous life, Boogie used to be punished for growling/barking, which is why he is a “silent biter”)
- When a dog lies down and shows his belly, this does not always mean = “Pet me” (or friendliness)
She distinguishes between the “Rollover” and the “Tap Out”. The former is when a dog’s whole body is relaxed and/or wiggly and he wants a belly rub. But if a dog lies down and shows other signs of stress, and then gets back up again after you retreat, this is a submissive “tap out”. He does not want to be touched.
The later part of the DVD shows behavior sequences when shelter dogs are being assessed. In most cases, Sarah K performs certain actions to elicit the problem behaviors (eg, touching the dog’s body or food with a fake arm-on-a-stick)… and offers explanations of what is going on. Some dogs appear totally friendly, then turn suddenly and bite!!! (HELLO, Boogie!) Sometimes the warning signals are really subtle; sometimes they only come out when food is present or when a person does something to freak the dog out, eg, touch his tail.
It is sad to know that some of these dogs will be euthanized if they don’t pass the temperament test… like one puppy that showed subtle signs of aggressive behavior that she believed would get worse in adulthood. I don’t understand why this puppy was considered untrainable.
There are also heartwarming examples of dogs who improve after spending time in a foster home with TLC (away from the stress of the shelter) and become place-able in forever homes, which reaffirms for me why rescue and fostering is so important.