An easy way to become dog fluent

I'm pleased to announce a new group called iSpeakDog that focuses on the details of dog behavior, communication, and emotions. I'm also very glad that I was able to do an interview with its founder, dog trainer and journalist Tracy Krulik. Our exchange went as follows. 

With permission of Tracy Krulik
Source: With permission of Tracy Krulik

Why did you form iSpeakDog?

The tipping point for me was the day I saw a man hit his Pointer for growling in a crowded veterinary lobby. The room was packed with dogs, cats, and people, and this Pointer was stationed right next to the door and the reception desk. She became visibly more uncomfortable as each person and dog walked in, and she had no way to hide. So this Aussie walks in and sniffs her, and she growls. I’m thinking, “I can’t believe it took her THIS long to growl,” and, “Good girl! Give him a warning signal rather than biting him.”  But the man hit her and apologized to the Aussie’s owner, saying that his dog can be so aggressive. I nervously (not wanting to get hit myself!) commented that she looked scared to me--pointed out the crowded room, the tucked tail, the massive eye whites showing, the shifting body weight, etc.—and explained that dogs often growl when they are scared, to ask things to back off. The man immediately softened, said that he hadn’t thought of it that way, and then gave the pooch a kiss on the head. 

It hit me that there is such a massive disconnect between what people think their dogs are doing and saying and what is really happening, and everyone suffers because of it. So many dogs are punished for so-called “bad behavior,” and their people never get to fully enjoy the company of their pups. When I learned to read my Beagle’s body language and understood that giving her outlets to sniff and dig and hunt would make her feel fulfilled, that’s when the fun started. As a writer, I wanted to share what I had learned, so others could feel as close to their pups. 

What are your major goals?

We have two things happening this week: we’re launching our new website ispeakdog.org and we’re hosting iSpeakDog Week a global campaign to spread the truth about dog body language and behavior. 

With the website, my hope is that people walk away appreciating the need to understand their dog’s emotional state in order to get along better with him or her. My Beagle Emma suffers from generalized anxiety, and when she’s scared, she shuts down. So walking with her on a leash was torture initially—she literally wouldn’t walk. I had one trainer watch her and then tie a leash around her neck and drag Emma down the street. This trainer told me that Emma was being stubborn and that I coddled her too much. That’s why she won’t move, she said. My gut told me this woman was way off, and so I fired her and then became a student in Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers to learn to train Emma myself. It turns out that when I learned to read body language, I discovered that Emma was scared. I needed to help Emma feel more comfortable so that she could be emotionally strong enough to walk.

Traditional leash-training methods were useless. Emma was too scared to move at all. 
You know what the key was? Letting Emma sniff. I let her nose lead the way into the bushes and behind the trees, and after she checked everything out and knew she was safe, she walked by my side with a happy waggy tail. If that dog trainer didn’t know how to read Emma’s screamingly loud body language clues that she was terrified, it’s not surprising to me that so many dog guardians don’t know how to do it either.

The main goal of iSpeakDog Week is to change the conversation away from ubiquitous urban legends--like "you have to dominate your dog in order to get him to behave for you"—and get people talking about the truth. We want to share the wealth of information that scientists like you give us. It’s sad that TV personalities with zero scientific knowledge of dogs dictate the conversation on dog behavior. Let’s just speak about the truth so loudly that we silence the ones spreading the junk. 

What's unique about iSpeakDog

Our website teaches people how to understand their dogs’ behavior using a three-step formula: STEP 1: Name the exact behavior the dog is doing. (Jumping on people? Growling at strangers? Pulling on leash?) STEP 2: Describe the dog’s body language. (Loose, bouncy movements? Tense body? Tucked tail? Eye whites showing?) STEP 3: Describe what is going on. (At the vet? Are kids running at the dog? Are there other dogs around? Did the doorbell ring?)

Once you answer those three questions, you can then easily investigate for yourself on our website what it all means and come up with an answer. 
Using Emma’s walking challenge as an example, had the trainer followed the three-step formula, she would have known that Emma was scared. We needed to resolve the underlying emotional issue to fix the behavior “problem.” It’s not enough to say that a dog is “pulling on leash.” Just like the English words “there, they’re, and their” mean different things depending on their context, dogs’ behaviors mean different things depending on context as well. Sometimes dogs growl because they’re scared; sometimes they growl because they’re playing. And some dogs pull on leash to NOT move forward, because they are scared. 

How can people get involved?

The website is live as of March 27th, and will be open to everyone. We have iSpeakDog Week events running all week, March 27 - April 1, and that info is on ispeakdog.org as well. We encourage everyone to "iSpeakDog-ify" their social media profile pictures with our logos and hashtag, and join us in spreading the truth about dogs. Write #iSpeakDog blog posts, host social media “Ask the Expert” events. Let’s flood the internet with solid science-based information on dog body language and behavior. 

Who is your intended audience?

Dog guardians, trainers, groomers, vets— basically anyone who interacts with dogs. 

Is there anything else you'd like people to know about your new group?

Four wonderful organizations immediately jumped on board to help me create this initiative: The Academy for Dog Trainers, The Bark Magazine, The Pet Professional Guid, and the Humane Rescue Alliance. The leadership team from the Academy all volunteered their writing, editing, and graphic design skills to help me create the website, and everyone involved in the project has participated simply to help the dogs. Any money raised through swag sales will go to the Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington, D.C. 

It’s incredible to see the work come together. We have people as far away as Greece, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Australia signing up to speak for the dogs. It gives me hope!

Thank you Tracy. I'm sure that people who visit your site will become dog fluent. It's a win-win for all, for we need to understand dogs as the emotional and sentient beings they truly are, and also recognize that they are captive animals who need to adapt to a human-oriented world. It all comes down to relationships that need to be tolerant and respectful of all of the individuals involved. 

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. His homepage is marcbekoff.com

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