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What are you trying to tell me? Canine Body Language with Susan Briggs

Special Guests

Susan Briggs

Susan Briggs and Robin Bennett are co-founders of The Dog Gurus, the nation’s premier resource for dog care professionals. They are the authors of "Off-Leash Dog Play… A Complete Guide to Safety and Fun," and an extensive staff training program for dog daycare and boarding facilities called "Knowing Dogs." Susan is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, author, speaker, and pet business expert. She brings over 18 years of experience in the pet industry with 12 years as co-owner and operator of a successful dog daycare, lodging, grooming and training business in Houston, Texas. Through The Dog Gurus, Robin and Susan are now helping pet care professionals get their lives back by showing them how to create sustainable businesses with teams that truly know dogs.

What are you trying to tell me? Canine Body Language with Susan Briggs

In this episode, Joe Zuccarello is joined by The Dog Gurus canine expert Susan Briggs to unpack the warning signals of canine body language. Working with a goal of getting a dog from the danger zone back to “relaxed,” they’ll unpack the secrets to safe pet handling. Learn the answer to questions like these:

  • What does lip-licking mean?
  • Will a highly stressed dog take a treat? Should you offer one?
  • Can a muzzle be “settling” for a dog?
  • Are dogs wiser than humans in canine body language?
  • What should you say to a customer whose dog is showing cautionary body language?

Tune in to find out!

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Transcript

Intro: Welcome to Hey Joe, a podcast answering questions asked by our listeners created by pet professionals for pet professionals.
Now, your host, Hey Joe’s very own, Joe Zuccarello.

Joe Z.: What’s up, everyone? Joe Zuccarello here, and welcome to Hey Joe, a podcast brought to you by Paragon School of Pet Grooming. Check out our site at paragonpetschool.com for lots of really cool information on a variety of programs, products, and to connect to educational resources such a s webinars, podcasts, current events, special news, certifications, and lots of other helpful information to help you grow yourself, your team, and of course your business. Let’s get started with this week’s episode.
Hey, everyone, Joe Zuccarello, your host of the Hey Joe Podcast, a podcast where you get to listen in on a conversation between myself and an industry expert. Thank you in advance for any questions that you might be submitting to the Hey Joe Podcast. Remember, you can do that by submitting your questions to heyjoequestions@paragonpetschool.com.
This week, we’re talking with Susan Briggs, one of my most respected pet professionals in the industry. Susan is the co-owner of an education company specializing in helping business owners and managers drive their business in pet services to new levels through safety, best practices and operations, community involvement, and professionals. Her and the co-owner of her business named Robin are the gurus, if you would, of the pet services industry. In fact, that’s the name of their business: The Dog Gurus. So, go to paragonpetschool.com to learn more about Susan and to download the transcript of this podcast, and even better, go there to unlock the tools that Susan is making available to you, the Hey Joe listener audience for free. Go there now and unlock those special goodies. Don’t forget to also subscribe if you haven’t already to this podcast and your favorite medium so that you’re alerted to the new releases every week.
Susan and I are going to be talking about her expertise and the experience that they have in the daycare and training world. We’re going to be talking about methods to grow safe and prosperous pet services businesses, and you’ll quickly see why her and her team are regarded as the authority or the gurus on this topic. Let’s get started with the interview with Susan. I hope you enjoy it.
Hey, Susan. Thanks for jumping on another episode of the Hey Joe Podcast today.

Susan B.: My pleasure. I’m happy to be invited.

Joe Z.: I say another episode because we had Susan on a previous episode focusing on adding pet services to your existing pet services business so that you can make more money. If you haven’t listened to that episode, I’d recommend that you do. Filled with just a ton of great information, and I’m not going to necessarily rehash the whole thing, but I’ll tell you that you want to go there and listen to and pay attention to one of my new favorite words, “enrichment.” So if you’re wondering what that is, I’m not going to tell you. You have to go listen to the first podcast, but today, we are going to talk about something that affects all pet service providers when it comes to dogs, and that is interpreting canine body language.
Before we get into that, Susan, tell us a little bit about yourself and about The Dog Gurus, how you got started, the services you provide, and so on.

Susan B.: Yeah. The Dog Gurus started, I’m a partner with Robin Bennett. She’s a certified professional dog trainer, and Robin and I were a couple of the early pioneers offering dog daycare services way back. I’m not going to say how many years ago, but [crosstalk 00:04:08] a long time ago. We’re in Houston, Texas. I had to explain to people why they’d want to bring their dogs to doggy daycare, so that’s how far we’ve come. Robin was in Virginia, I was in Texas, but we shared this passion that daycare could be a great service for the dogs, that it had to be done safely. What we kind of learned was the keys to keeping dogs safe could be taught, and it was really based on canine body language. So we wrote our first book back in 2007, Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety and Fun, and we kind of became the dog daycare experts teaching body language-

Joe Z.: The gurus. The gurus.

Susan B.: The gurus, exactly. So in 2013, we just made it official and started the dog gurus and just kept going deeper into how to make dog daycare safe for the dogs, profitable for the business, and fun because it should be fun but it’s a lot of work. So any of you that have been around it know it can be a lot of work. The Dog Gurus was there to kind of bring the fun back, and as we worked with our members, we found that making money at daycare could be challenging and making money in pet care could be challenging, so my background in accounting and operations management, Robin was a logistics officer in the Marines, we’ve now expanded The Dog Gurus to also include business help to help pet businesses launch, grow, and profit that I’m excited today to get back kind of to our roots and where it all started, and canine body language. I’ve always said, Joe, this was kind of the sexy part of what I did in the pet industry versus the accounting and numbers side. I’m excited to talk about it today.

Joe Z.: Well I think anything’s sexier than accounting.

Susan B.: Yeah.

Joe Z.: I would agree with you. Even washing my car might be better than accounting and numbers.

Susan B.: I know.

Joe Z.: You are talking to a dude who really likes to study the numbers and there are several other topics. I mean we can go on for days on how much I believe that numbers tell a story and it’s evidence, it doesn’t lie. It’s the temperature of the business, blah, blah, but I will agree with you.
When you talk about canine body language, one, it’s extremely important that we respect canine body language. It’s probably the best word that I could use. I’ve been around a lot, a lot of dog trainers in my career and I’ve been around a lot of groomers. I’ve seen a lot of people get bit. I’ve seen a lot of injuries, and one thing that a dog trainer taught me a long time ago, and if he’s listening out there, thank you, Dave, but he said, “Listen, if you get bit, you missed a sign. You missed something that the dog was trying to tell you.” So, let’s maybe dive right in because I don’t want somebody in the Hey, Joe! listener audience to miss a sign. So if they pick up something, and then later today or tomorrow, after they’ve listened to this episode they see that sign, and they’re going to be like, “Oh, I’m so glad I listened” because you just don’t know what you might have almost got yourself into, so a near miss, right? I think sometimes, we’re just a lot lucky. We have a lot of luck on our side, and not just our quick cat-like reflexes when a strike happens, but to pick up on it.
You know what? If a dog is in that position, the dog’s not happy either.

Susan B.: No, and we really believe that it’s not fair to get the dogs to the point where they have to bite to get their message across.

Joe Z.: Right, right. So it’s not just about safety but it’s also about a pleasurable experience while the pets are entrusted in our are and such.

Susan B.: Absolutely.

Joe Z.: Really, I think even pets are sometimes mishandled, mislabeled because we just didn’t know how to interpret it and we’re just going to slap a title on them, a label on them, and it may not be fair.
So, let’s jump right in. I’m sorry. Real quick before we do, if any of the Hey, Joe! listener audience out there, you can subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t already. You can submit questions that you might have after or during your listening of this podcast that maybe you want some followup on. You can do all of that by going to heyjoequestions@paragonpetschool.com, and you can simply email those to us or submit your questions through our forum on this particular webpage.
So, let’s talk about canine body language. I titled this “Interpreting What They Are ‘Telling Us.'” If somebody comes to you or maybe in early times that you’re working with them at The Dog Gurus, why would you recommend that everybody in the pet industry learn this canine body language and be able to translate it?

Susan B.: Yeah, there’s so many reasons but the top ones, it really does start with personal safety of everyone that works with dogs. You don’t want to get bit. It’s not fun to get bit by a dog, and it doesn’t have to happen, so for personal safety reasons, and it also gives us that early warning sign that a dog is uncomfortable. As pet professionals, I think it’s important that we understand that and do what we can to make the dogs comfortable because that’s going to improve your relationship. It’s almost like when you understand canine body language, the dogs know you do, and they just get this sigh of relief that, “Oh my God, I’m finally around people that get me.” It does so much to improve the relationship with all the dogs you work with, but then even your own personal dogs. In the end, it makes providing whatever service you’re responsible for so much easier.

Joe Z.: Yeah. It takes that kind of burden off. I’m going to use an example: it’s interpreting. It’s translating what they’re trying to tell us. If you ever tried to, when there’s a language barrier between two people from two different countries, two different barriers, okay, somebody from Houston and somebody from Missouri.

Susan B.: That’s right.

Joe Z.: But sometimes there are those things and you’re like, “Okay, it’s an extra challenge for me to have a solid relationship because sometimes I just truly don’t understand what you’re saying.” Providing services [inaudible 00:10:48], improving your relationship, safety, all of those things, I can say exactly where that comes into play. How do you make teaching canine body language easier? Who needs to know it? Is it just the groomer? Is it the rest of the staff? What does that look like?

Susan B.: Well Robin and I say, I think everyone who works in a pet center needs to understand canine body language, so yeah. Definitely the groomer. The groomers, I think, know this intuitively. The issue is, how do they communicate it and teach it to others if they even have time to do that? The bather or even the receptionist, or anyone that interacts with dogs needs to understand it to stay safe and also make sure the dogs are comfortable. What Robin and I do, and it started in our book Off-Leash Dog Play but it’s so applicable, we teach canine body language based on a traffic management signal because what we really found is people get the green signals. We know when dogs are happy and relaxed and comfortable, and most of the time, we also know those red signals, the ones that are true warning signs: the growls, the snarls. Those are easy. What we really focus on is the yellow signals because when you understand the yellow, that’s that early warning that a dog is becoming uncomfortable, and what we say is we want to get the dog back to green, and then we talk about how you may do that.
It becomes a language that everybody in your center can use and understand and communicate with, as well as understanding the dogs better.

Joe Z.: I’ve often said that we are second graders. We’re all just really big second graders, right? So making learning easy, and here, you’re tying it, I mean how much easier can it be than a traffic signal, right? So you’ve got red, yellow, green. However, I will tell you, I’m going to add something and you can use it. I’ll give you this-

Susan B.: Okay, thank you.

Joe Z.: You’re welcome, but don’t thank me yet. You might not like it. No. I happened to visit the upper peninsula of Michigan and met some really great people up there, but let’s face it: some of those towns are really, really small. You’ve heard of “the one stop light town” or “the one stop sign town.” There’s a lot of them up there in the upper peninsula. I was up in this one town and I had to ask for directions to a particular point of interest that I was going to, and I asked a young lady. She said, “Okay, so you go down to the slow down light, and just beyond the slow down light, the place you’re looking for is on the right-hand side.” I looked at her and I’m like, “Slow down light?” She said, “Yeah. You know, that yellow flashing light.” I’m like, “Oh, a slow down light.” So all of a sudden, you’re talking about traffic signals and being a great way to interpret behavior, I start thinking of yellow. Not go very fast like most of us do in real traffic, right, but that the yellow is a slow down light.

Susan B.: Absolutely.

Joe Z.: There you go, and maybe-

Susan B.: I love that.

Joe Z.: Yeah, so you can put that in. It Hey, Joe world, that’s what we call a Joe-ism.

Susan B.: Okay. I like that Joe-ism because you know really, we start when we’re teaching body language with these basic principles of our dogs, is you want to go at the dog’s pace, which usually is much slower than we want to go, and more space as a friend. Dogs like having space around them, that kind of space bubble. That’s a perfect analogy, thank you.

Joe Z.: No, you’re welcome.
Okay, so you said really, everybody recognizes the green. Everybody recognizes, or most people should recognize the red, but if their goal is to go from yellow to green, what are some of the yellow signals that are easy to spot?

Susan B.: These are the ones that we start with and help teach. This may be true more of larger dogs, there’s always exceptions to everything in our dogs, but when your Lab is at home and relaxed, they usually have an open mouth, just kind of slightly open. Then when they close that mouth, that open-to-close mouth is a signal that something’s gotten their attention. Lip-licking, we see that a lot when dogs are trying to figure things out or they’re a little bit uncomfortable. They’ll start lip-licking. Yawning; our dogs are not as tired as we may think they are. Yawns are kind of a stress signal. Sometimes these yellows are also called stress or calming signals. There’s a look-away when a dog’s in an environment seeing something, they’re uncomfortable, feeling pressure. They may turn their head and look away, or the half moon eye where you’re beginning to see the whites of the eye that you don’t normally see, and stiffening. When they’re no longer in that relaxed, loose muscles, they stiffen up a little bit. Sometimes to reset, we’ll see our dogs do like a shake-off. I mean in grooming, you see it a lot after they’re wet, but a dry shake-off is often just kind of that release or reset when a dog needs to release some stress.

Joe Z.: You know, I don’t know that I would’ve ever thought of lip-licking as a yellow sign. Let’s unpack that one for a minute. What would cause that? I don’t know. I don’t really know what question to ask, but you kind of caught me by that one.

Susan B.: Uh-huh. Well, if you think about even ourselves and how we respond to something that’s unfamiliar with us, to our dog, they see the world as things that are familiar or unfamiliar. Every time they go to a new place, it’s unfamiliar and they have to get used to it. Their response when something is unfamiliar or they’re not sure and they’re evaluating it is kind of that, I don’t know if they’re getting some kind of scents from the air with the lip-licking, but an easy thing to try is you can say, “Okay, I’m magical and I can read dogs.” We love to hug and kiss our dogs, but our dogs truly don’t love it, and I only recommend you do this with your own dog who knows you well.

Joe Z.: That’s probably a good idea.

Susan B.: Yeah, I have done this. I can hug my dog that has lived with me for six or seven years, and you will see a lip lick.

Joe Z.: Really?

Susan B.: [crosstalk 00:17:32] a closed mouth lip lick. I would bet 99 times out of 100.

Joe Z.: All right, I’m so hugging Vinny when I get home and [crosstalk 00:17:40] do this.

Susan B.: Yeah. They tolerate a lot from us, but it doesn’t mean they love it. It’s just a little momentarily, like, “Okay, yeah, Mom. I know you love to hug me and I’ll let you, but this is not my favorite thing to do in the world.”

Joe Z.: Wow.

Susan B.: I think it’s just kind of a stress response, and it may actually help calm them down. You will see sometimes some of these stress signals, other dogs can use back to dogs as a calming signal. It’s pretty fascinating, and we as humans can do that too with some of them, like a yawn, or you can kind of give calming signals back to a dog. Again, that’s where they’ll go. “Oh my gosh, this human gets me. I’m so happy,” and you start communicating.

Joe Z.: All right, so my very first tip to all of the pet professionals out there, take an extra half a second to observe because I think sometimes, we get so busy and we get so keyed up and so tied up, which probably is also a stressor, right? So if we’re stressed, we’re going to naturally pass that along to the pets, which sort of sounds like a no-brainer and everybody’s like, “Yeah, duh, Joe,” right? Okay, guys. That’s why I have Susan on the line here. I’m Captain Obvious sometimes, but the yawning part and the lip-licking, some of these things are surprising to me. Maybe if there’s a recommendation I can give is just slow down just a half a second and observe what’s going on around you with the pet’s behavior.

Susan B.: Right. It’s kind of like having a conversation with a pet. I mean when we’re having conversation, you and I, we pause, listen, and then respond, and I think when we work with pets, a lot of times we skip that “pause” and “listen,” which is really the observation of the body language, because they can adjust very quickly. They may just need a moment to say, “Okay, now I’m on this table. Is it going to move? Am I safe? How are they going to approach me and handle me? I need a minute to adjust to this before you start picking up my feet and trimming my nails.”

Joe Z.: Right.

Susan B.: “I’d be okay with that, but give me a minute, or give me a [crosstalk 00:19:53].”

Joe Z.: Yeah, and, “I may be okay with one thing but uncomfortable with the next. I may actually be okay with you trimming my nails, but I’m not comfortable being in a loud environment.” We just don’t know. So talking about the different environments where they’re at, them, where might the professional pet groomer out there see these signals, these yellow signals, during, let’s say, a day at the salon or a day at the spa?

Susan B.: Well as we talked about, to the dog, things are familiar or unfamiliar. If you have a first-time dog visiting you that’s never been to a grooming salon or to your grooming salon before, it may start right when the pet walks in the door with the parent because they’re unsure. It’s unfamiliar. Even dogs that have been there before, now they may have an association with what’s going to happen. “Now that I’m here …” We know some pets aren’t loving the grooming process, even though it’s necessary, so it can start when you’re taking that pet from the parent. That’s why we feel like your client relations and reception staff should also understand the body language. Again, it is slowing down, going at the dog’s pace to make sure that transfer is done safely. Definitely removing dogs from the enclosures, that’s a safe place. If they’re comfortable there and now you’re going to come get them out, again, watch for signals. Some of them may not want to come out right away. Handling paws and nail trims, we often see it. It can also happen if dogs have mats or tangles and you’re brushing them out. That’s from actual physical pain and being uncomfortable. Starting the bath process, putting in the tub, drying, almost anything everywhere in the process I think you can see signals come up.

Joe Z.: You know at the Paragon School of Pet Grooming, one of the basic pet handling tips that we teach in our school, whether it’s in the on-campus curriculum or distance learning program, or even on our sister brand, which is learntogroomdogs.com, one of those that we teach quite often is taking the pet from the pet parent. We probably don’t even key them in as to maybe seeing how the pet are behaving. What are some of these yellow signals, right, that the pet is showing us before we would even possibly even make the mistake of taking the pet from the pet parent straight out of their arms or whatever? There’s kind of a story to be told before you even consider doing that.

Susan B.: Right.

Joe Z.: Yeah, those are all great things. Okay, so obviously if our goal is to take yellow to green, how do you know when yellow is going to red?

Susan B.: Yeah, that’s the million dollar question [crosstalk 00:22:52], isn’t it? Gosh. What we look at, and again, things can happen really fast, so when we teach canine body language, we start with still pictures, then we go to slow motion video, and then we go to real-time video. It is amazing what you can see in slow motion video that we don’t see with the eye. You really have to train your eye to see all this. So we start with looking at the number of signals they’re giving. Are you seeing that closed mouth with lip-licking and the look-away half-moon eye? As you stack more signals together, the dog’s saying, “Okay, I am really ready to get over the top.” Also, how long have these signals been going on? Is the dog who was showing signals when they arrived in the lobby still showing them in the enclosure and then again still on the table? If that is 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, it’s kind of like you. How long have you been in stress? Your fuse is going to be shorter, so it could go to red, but if they get into the enclosure and they relax and you see those signals, that would help.
Then there can be kind of escalation of signals, like stacking a lot on top. Stiffening is, I think, the one to probably rally watch because when a of is stiffening, they don’t have any relax. Then the next signals could definitely be red. In the groom environment and professional pet care, stiffening is one of the most, what I would say, escalation of higher signals that “I’m really not happy.” We do that as well; once you get really tense, you know how much that’s taken, and it’s real easy to just explode just to let it out.

Joe Z.: Yeah, it’s a release of pressure, right? So if you’re looking at these signals, if you’re looking at an escalation of signals, is it the best to then try to maybe look at things through their eyes, so to kind of absorb the stimuli that’s happening around them as if you were them? Maybe seeing things from their eyes and having that perspective? Does that help?

Susan B.: Oh my gosh, it does. I love when people think about, “Okay, if I’m this dog, what’s going on in my world that’s upsetting me?” For every dog, it’ll be different. I love that. That’s a great tip, Joe, to view the environment from the dog’s eyes and maybe a small dog is going to be seeing things differently than a large dog just because of the size difference. Being able to set up enclosures, maybe just moving them to where they’re seeing something different or hearing something different, trying to create that environment to be more calming. Even the colors that you used in your environment can make a difference, and unfortunately, a lot of times for those dogs that tend to escalate or get labeled aggressive, we’ll put something red there. Well red as a color just escalates. What you want to do is do like a light blue. Calming colors, love music, aromatherapy, anything that’s calming will help deescalate these yellow signals.

Joe Z.: So what’s the recommendation, then? Let me go back a half a step? Yeah, if I was eight inches tall, I would probably have a much different perspective than six feet tall. Everybody else is a giant.

Susan B.: Right.

Joe Z.: I man, how intimidating is that? When you talk about your environment, I know that there are people that just really cannot stand crowds. I look at some of those rallies that happen after your hometown team wins a Stanley Cup like the St. Louis Blues did this year, and I know I’m not supposed to say that and keep these things evergreen, but yay, Blues. Anyway, there were a half million people in a half-mile square block-

Susan B.: Yeah, crazy.

Joe Z.: You weren’t going to see Joe Zuccarello there at all because I really don’t feel like being shoulder to shoulder with people. I have to travel all the time and I have to deal with tight airplane seats and tight quarters that way because I have to, but I’m not going to voluntarily put myself in that position. To your point, improve their environment, right, but what are some other recommendations that you might make to turning yellow back to green, or at least not escalating?

Susan B.: Yeah, one of my favorite is treats, and I know that there’s a lot of issues about allergies and sensitivities, but one of the things I love about treats is it does kind of give you a read on the level of stress a dog is in at that moment because again, if they’re too stressed and not taking a treat, that’s pretty high. We definitely want to get it down to a lower level. If the dog will take treats, then okay, they’re not too stressed. Let’s see if maybe they can associate something good with this process. It will help them maybe never like it, but tolerate it because, “At least I’m getting something good from it.” We’re big proponents of treats. If you can’t use treats, then you know what? We can use our own praise and pleasant touching. Most of our pet dogs have some places they liked to be scratched. Find those favorite places. Praise them. They’ve been a good dog for letting you do that. Again, it’s taking a moment to slow down and follow up something stressful with something good, and see if you can get back to that green body language.
Sometimes all you have to do is stop and take a pause. Again, let the dog catch up. See if you can get some green language before you start back in to something that’s going to make them uncomfortable. Sometimes if you just try a different hold or approach, you may find that, “Okay, that’s more comfortable for this dog.” Those some of the things that, I think a lot of groomers do this very naturally, but that’s kind of the thing. They don’t know what they’re doing that makes them successful and why someone else is struggling.

Joe Z.: So a couple things. One thing is I just want to remind the Hey Joe listener audience of who we’re talking to. This is Susan Briggs with The Dog Gurus. Their website is thedoggurus.com. You’re just getting literally not even the tip of the iceberg of this team’s expertise by listening to Susan today, but we’re talking about canine body language and trying to translate or interpret what these pets are telling us so that we put ourselves out of harm’s way more often and we’re not relying on luck or positive happenstance to keep us from getting injured or providing a negative experience for the pets. You just went through a really great list, and I’m sure it’s just, again, a beginning list of what we could do different to deescalate a situation. Maybe taking these yellow signs back down to green or at least keep them from escalating, and I couldn’t help but chuckle inside, that I read all of this and I think, “Well heck, these things work for people too.”

Susan B.: [inaudible 00:30:26].

Joe Z.: You know? I mean for some of our Hey Joe listener audience out there, you might be the manager of the pet salon. You might be the owner of the pet salon. Okay. You might deescalate the situation if you offer your teammates treats.

Susan B.: That’s right.

Joe Z.: Right? I mean hey, a good pizza lunch goes a long way, right?

Susan B.: Absolutely.

Joe Z.: I would not recommend pleasant touching. That’s probably an exception here. You heard it here: don’t do that, but stop doing what you’re doing for a brief moment. Sometimes even if all this is is just to calm yourself. Calming yourself really does probably calm the dog, from what I’ve learned from the dog gurus, and trying a different hold or approach, this is where education becomes so important because Melissa Verplank, the founder of Paragon School of Pet Grooming has often said that there’s no black and white in dog grooming. There might be ten different totally acceptable ways to get to a beautiful finished product, but you might have to employ a different technique or a different approach to grooming, or you might have to do that also when it comes to handling a pet. Using safety tools, yeah. At the end of the day, sometimes a muzzle’s necessary.

Susan B.: Absolutely.

Joe Z.: So let me ask you a question, fact or fiction. I’m going to put you on the spot here. It’s not something we [crosstalk 00:31:48] in our show prep, but I think you can handle it.
Fact or fiction: sometimes a muzzle is settling to a dog.

Susan B.: I think for some dogs, it can be, yes. Again, the body language will tell you.

Joe Z.: Okay.

Susan B.: Some dogs [crosstalk 00:32:05]-

Joe Z.: Yeah, I’ve heard it sometimes and I’m like, “I don’t know. Is it or is it not?”

Susan B.: Yeah. There are pressure points in the body. That’s how the gentle leader works. That head collar-

Joe Z.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Susan B.: Is kind of pressure points that help calm the dog.

Joe Z.: Yeah, and just-

Susan B.: But I would read the rest of the body language to know for sure.

Joe Z.: Yeah, and again, no one technique stands on its own, right? I mean no one technique of communicating or translating what two people are discussing in a relationship. I like to try to bring a lot of real life examples to the table, to the surface, and the number one reason for challenges or even failures in relationships is communication.

Susan B.: Right.

Joe Z.: I don’t know. Maybe one thing I’m learning from you is sometimes maybe the number one failure of a successful experience with a pet could be improper methods of communication.

Susan B.: Right. I’ve been studying dogs, canine body language for close to 20 years, and I still learn new things when I step back and truly just observe their communication, especially between each other. I find it fascinating, and I’m still learning. They have so much to teach us.

Joe Z.: That’s an interesting tip. I mean, you watch them during maybe some group play times and things like that, but you said that they can actually sometimes send calming signals from dog to dog, like maybe it’s two grooming tables in the same grooming salon.

Susan B.: Sure, yeah.

Joe Z.: That just fascinates me.

Susan B.: It does. They are so wise, and I think coming from the play off-leash play environment where we do a lot of assessments where you’re introducing dogs to each other that don’t know each other, you see so many signals and behaviors that are just fascinating. We had this one dog that no dog would go up and approach, and it was like, we couldn’t see what it was, but you trust the other dogs to tell you that there was something going on, that they knew this dog did not want them to get close, and these were dogs that we’d seen do tens of, maybe even a hundred evaluations. All of them stayed clear, and there were no obvious red signals going on; this was all being done with yellow. It blows my mind. That’s why I just love observing dogs communicating. They’re much wiser about it than we are.

Joe Z.: Okay, while we’re sharing stories, I have to tell you this one and maybe in an offline conversation, you could offer me some tips. One of our businesses that Melissa Verplank has is Whiskers Pet Resort and Spa up here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was meeting with the leader of that team, a really special named Rebecca. She’s just awesome, and her team is incredible, but one of her team members who works there has this medium-sized black short-haired dog. I don’t even know the breed origin or several breeds origin of this particular dog, but it is amazing to watch when the staff member, when the team member, when she brings this dog into the building, I don’t care if there are dogs that are on the other side of the building, the place lights up like a Christmas tree. All of the guest dogs, all of the dogs that are there for daycare or lodging or grooming. What is that presence that one dog could send like a ripple effect through a facility? You know what? In my 30+ years of being in this industry, I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like this.

Susan B.: Yeah, and it’s fascinating. I’d love to observe him and the other dogs. You learn a lot from watching the body language of the other dog, and we teach that for off-leash play. It’s like, “Is play appropriate?” The way you know is, what we say, “Look at the body language of maybe the victim dog, the one that’s in the more submissive posture. The one that’s below if they’re doing wrestling play, or the one that’s being chased if there’s a chase game. Read that dog’s body language to see how the other dogs are responding to the behavior of the aggressor.
I would love to see what is the body language of the other dogs around that dog and also that dog’s language. You need to videotape that for me, Joe, and send it to me.

Joe Z.: You know what? I will do that. Challenge accepted. I will do that for you. It’s just going to blow your mind. Again, I’m just befuddled by it. It’s just amazing.

Susan B.: And that’s where we still learn.

Joe Z.: Yeah, oh yeah. Okay, so let’s talk about still learning. I’m not proud of this, but I have been a witness to, not a participant, in my career I’ve had the opportunity to work with, gosh, it’s got to be thousands of pet professionals along the way. I’ve been in hundreds of pet care facilities, and I’ve seen groomers wrestle dogs as if it is a competition. They wrestle the dogs down onto the table. Sometimes they’re two people holding a dog down so that they can do the nails. Just because you and the dog gurus and myself and all of the awareness we’re bringing to the listener audience, just because we’re bringing the awareness and offering tips doesn’t necessarily give you a license to, “Oh, now that I recognize this, now I know how to act on it,” but I’ve seen that fight go on in grooming salons before. I know that’s an extreme case, but everybody knows it happens and it’s unfortunate, but what do you say if there’s a dog’s behavior that we pick up on the signs, and maybe we see it staying at yellow, maybe it’s escalating to red, and there’s just not a whole lot we can do for that pet given our skill level. What do you recommend in that case?

Susan B.: I think the humane response is to have a discussion with the pet parent as to why it’s not safe for the staff and it’s really not emotionally good for the dog to pursue completing the service. I think it’s okay to say no and give the reasons why. I think as pet professionals, we have a responsibility to keep ourselves and our staff safe, and then I think we also have an obligation to the pet parents to help educate so they understand their dog’s behavior and to be honest about the behavior. Just think about emotionally what that’s doing to that dog. Think about if you didn’t like having your hair cut and so we had to strap you into the chair, hold you down, and sit on you so you could get a haircut, what does that do to you emotionally? I think as pet professionals, we should not be causing emotional harm to any pet in our care. Give help so the other professionals, I mean don’t leave the pet parent hanging. There are options. I mean, I think sedation to get things done is not good on an ongoing basis, but short-term that might help. That’s where we need to bring in good behavior professionals who have a positive approach and let them help.
That’s my bias. Some of my trainer friends say, “The slower you go, the faster you’ll get there.” The positive approach sometimes has that reputation of being slow, but you know what? Emotionally, I think it’s better for the dogs, which is what we’re all about, and I think sometimes as professionals, we need to know where our limits are and say no.

Joe Z.: Right. So let’s talk about what are The Dog Gurus all about because then, I know that the Hey Joe listener audience is sitting on the edge of their seats because they know our affiliates and our podcast guests are always bringing something really cool and very valuable exclusive to our audience. I know you’re going to get to that, but before you do that, so for everybody out there talking about us, find the experts. Find people that know more than you do. Always seek out education. At Paragon, you’ve often heard me say and you throw around the term “education is everything.” At The Dog Gurus, you have these tracks that pet professionals can participate in to help broaden their skillsets. Talk to us briefly about what those are and how they might help our audience?

Susan B.: Great. We definitely agree; we’re built on education, and so for the pet business owners, we have tracks that help them launch, grow, and profit. Going back to our core, we started with teaching K9 body language and safe play, and so we also have great resources to help train staff that work in professional pet care. Right now, we do have Knowing Dogs 101, which teaches basic K9 body language and safe handling. We feel everyone that works in the center should go through that program. We have it online, and then we also have 201 for staff that are doing daycare and play groups. That goes into more of how to safely manage and lead playgrounds, and we’re kind of building on our Knowing Dogs program and watching Pet Guru College very soon. We’re actually going to expand the knowledge base and tools that we have to train staff, because we know with busy pet care business owners, that’s hard to do five times, so we want to help you make it easy on the core knowledge that will help you keep dogs safe, understand dogs, and have healthy pets in your centers, which is our goal.

Joe Z.: Well, what I like about that is that not only do you serve the business owner or manager, but you also serve the staff and the team as well. No matter what level our Hey Joe listener audience member might be, you have a solution that can help them. Because you provide services and assistance at both levels, they work hand and glove with one another so that if maybe we’ve got a pet professional out there who is looking at starting their career, maybe they’re looking at branching off and going into their own business, you have something that they can take advantage of. Gosh, I wish that I had that kind of resource. I’ve often said that my most difficult part of ever being in the pet industry was when I was a young manager and I had staff that I was in charge of leading, but I didn’t have the tools to keep them as safe as what I wanted to, so if you find yourself out there in the audience, if that feels or sounds familiar, I urge you to gie The Dog Gurus a look.
Okay, so, Susan.

Susan B.: Yes?

Joe Z.: We’re talking about canine body language and the traffic signals and traffic signal management, and kind of boiling it down to our inner second-grader. What is it that base don some of that information, what is it that The Dog Gurus is making available to the Hey Joe listener audience?

Susan B.: Well we have this really cool set of posters to where we have pictures and describe some of the body language. That’s green, yellow, and red. Three different posters. We have full-size posters, but we also have digital versions of this poster set, and that’s what we’re going to offer to all of the Hey Joe listeners, is free copies of the digital version of our canine body language poster set.

Joe Z.: That is really cool. You know why I think that’s cool? If you’re just a standalone business, you’re going to learn something for it and it’s what a great visual reminder of what it is that you heard about today, but if you do have a team that works with you or that works for you, these are things that are easily identifiable. Again, channeling our inner second-grader. Everybody likes that picture version of a learning experience. You can’t get any more simple than that. Susan, that’s huge. In fact, we might look at using something like that at the Paragon School of Pet Grooming, so I definitely want to take you up and get that in front of our students as soon as possible. What a great, great offer. What a great tool.
I recommend that all of you Hey Joe listener audience members, go out to the paragonpetschool.com website. You can hop right into this episode page under the Hey Joe podcast. I want to thank Susan for joining us today and helping our audience stay even more safe by being able to interpret canine body language, and I especially want to thank our audience out there because again, this podcast thrives on the questions that we receive from our listener audience. It’s really easy: just send in those questions. You can do it by emailing heyjoequestions@paragonpetschool.com, and you might just hear your topic discussed with an industry expert in the near future. Please share this podcast with other industry friends and coworkers and teammates, family friends, whoever you think would find it enjoyable to listen to, but definitely who would benefit by it. Thank you, again, Susan, for just a wealth of knowledge. Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and I just really can’t wait to hear the success stories, not only for The Dog Gurus, congratulations by the way on Dog Gurus University. That’s awesome-

Susan B.: Oh, thank you.

Joe Z.: I can’t wait to learn more about that, but also, all of the ways that people are going to stay safe and service the pet parents and the pets even more in the future so thank you, again.

Susan B.: My pleasure.

About Joe

Joe Zuccarello is VP of the Paragon School of Pet Grooming, leaders in grooming education on campus and online. He possesses more than three decades of experience in the pet grooming, product development and pet business consulting disciplines.
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