Talking to the animals

by Joanne Marshall

Is that dog asking to be kicked?

When your sheepdog rolls on its back, shows its belly and throat should you kick it or pat it?

The answer is neither: Ignore it.

Many farmers loathe a dog that does just this, but in fact the farmers are just not understanding the dog's body language.

Visiting US animal psychologist and veterinarian Bob Miller said that each species has its own body language.

People need to understand this, and use it.

When a dog lowers its body position and exposes its throat and abdomen it is being submissive.

"They're saying you're the boss. You may kill me if you want. I won't fight you," Dr Miller says.

Understanding an animal's basic defense mechanisms is the first step to anticipating the animal's reaction, and then to controlling it.

"In dogs their primary defense is their teeth. Running away is a secondary defense.

"By snarling and showing their teeth they are displaying their weapon.

"In horned animals such as cattle you see the same thing. They lower their head and show you their horns," Dr Miller says.

It is also interesting that for thousands of their generations cattle have been bred for docility and yet it's still in their DNA to use those horns.

Determining each species' defense mechanisms is easiest done by studying their anatomy.

With humans, the key is in the thumb.

"The club was a primary defense, then once its end was sharpened we had a spear and we threw it," Dr Miller says.

So how do you use this information to your benefit?

Firstly you must understand that animals are either predators or prey animals.

Horses, cows, sheep and deer are prey animals.

Cats, dogs and humans are predators.

In horses the signs of submission and loyalty are to lower their heads and make rapid movements with their mouth and lips.

"In humans the sign of capitulation is to lower the head to present it to the club."

With cattle they lift their heads up and put their horns to the back and gets ready to turn and run.

When animals display these submissive suggestions to us we should try to understand them and reward them rather than punish them.

"They are talking to us. Unfortunately it doesn't mean anything to most humans.

"We are the reasoning species. We are capable of learning their language," Dr Miller says.

At present worldwide a revolution is taking place in animal training.

Significant breakthroughs have been made in training both dogs and horses. People are "abandoning the club" and are learning to talk to the animals. Dr Miller says he learnt a valuable lesson years ago when he was working as a vet.

He'd been having trouble catching horses and thought it was because they knew he was a vet.

He decided to pretend he was a farrier.

"I'd look at the horse's feet and I'd be able to walk straight up to the horse no problem.

"Eventually I realised it worked not because they thought I was a farrier but because I was looking at their feet and not at their faces.

"When I was looking them in the eye I was intimidating them ... they were thinking of me as a predator."

Once Dr Miller had realised the significance of this he was quickly able to put this principal into practice.

It's easy to see how this logic can be put into practice around the farm.

It is also interesting to note the differences between species in the wild.

A herd of horses, prey animals, will usually be led by a mare - and a decrepit old mare at that.

In dogs, a predator species, the leader is the alpha male.

The best time to begin training different species varies.

With horses, the earlier the better. In fact Dr Miller promotes the training (imprinting) of foals as soon as they are born - before they are even on their feet.

This early training involves bonding with the foal and gaining its respect.

A dog on the other hand is most receptive between six and 14 weeks of age and especially in its seventh week.


Dr Miller is a retired veterinarian who has worked extensively with zoo and circus animals in the US. He is particularly interested in animal behaviour, especially mule and horses.