When we took Star, our Bichon Frise puppy to the vet for her vaccinations, the vet made a comment which although it was said with affection brought me up short. After her first injections, she screeched so violently, a quick return visit to the surgery was necessary for painkiller to be administered. On this, the second bout of shots, she yelped and struggled as the needle broke through her skin.
"You're not the bravest are you?" the vet questioned as he ruffled her fur.
It surprised me. Of course she wasn't being brave. From her point of view, a complete stranger was hurting her, and all she wanted was for him to stop. The weight and size of a Bichon puppy renders trying to throw her weight around to impress her attacker pointless. So Star was taking the only option left open to her - she was squeaking and trying to roll onto her belly in the hope that if she gave dominance to the aggressor he would leave her alone. Bravery or cowardice do not come into the equation - effective communication was her aim.
When you think about it, effective communication is always a dog's aim. As I watch our two dogs - one so tall and glossy, one such a fluffy baby - it amazes me how well they convey to the other the message they want to send. When Buddy has had enough of Star licking him, he rises to his feet, shakes her off and darts his nose at her with a firm bark. Clearly he is telling her, "Leave me alone." Star is just as eloquent; she maintains her approaches, she rears up, dancing on her back feet, trying to plant her front paws on his face to steady her to get some good licking done. Shamelessly she proclaims her love for him.
When they play, they both display such evidently happy behaviour it is a joy to witness. Both tales wag like mad, both dogs leap around, running here running there. They stop, one will run one will chase, then just as suddenly the roles are reversed. They throw themselves into the game, oblivious to anything else going on around them.
Consider how our dogs communicate with us. Dogs sit and watch you attentively; some even tap you, when they are begging for some of your food. A dog fetching his lead, or constantly running to the door wants to go for his walk. A nudge of your hand with his nose means, "Give me a fuss." Howling means he's lonely and wants his pack, and yelping is for physical or emotional pain. A dog who is fearful or wants to be left alone will growl with increasing ferocity. If he wants to warn you more strongly he will bark. The strongest form of communication - the bite - is kept for those desperate occasions when all his warnings have gone unheeded, and he has been compromised in some way. Conversely that flag of a wagging tail advertises that the dog is happy and friendly.
You never have to ask a dog, "Have I upset you?" You will know, because they will be lying in the corner, back turned to you, clearly offended. Here are some other questions you never have to ask your dog; "Are you excited?" "Do you want some attention?" "Do you want to play?" "Are you pleased to see me?" "Do you love me?"
Dogs wish to communicate, and no pretence at bravery or any other charade clouds their communication. Personally I think we have a lot to learn from them.