DEAR DIDI: My Border Collie mix yawns constantly. We have run blood tests and everything looks normal. When we are trying to play with her, or train her, she yawns repeatedly so we let her just go take a nap. She goes straight to her bed and curls up. I was worried that she was lethargic and lacked energy, yet she seems to have a normal appetite and energy levels otherwise. Any ideas? -BC Mom
DEAR BC Mom: Many dogs, but Border Collies in particular, seem to have a very sensitive temperament. Temperament in a dog refers to how easily they feel intimidated or fearful. They may be nervous about their surroundings, strange noises, walking on a different texture than normal, sudden movements in their environment, too much direct eye contact from the human, etc. Things that seem completely normal, to the point where you don’t even notice them, may be a very big deal to your dog.
Yawning tends to be a sign of stress in canines. Repeated yawning is your dog trying to send a signal that she is uncomfortable with the situation. So, now you need to become a detective and figure out what is making her nervous. Is it the location in which you are training or playing? Rule that out by repeating what you are doing in a different place. If she is still yawning then location can be discarded. If there are other people involved in the scenario perhaps have them leave and see if she doesn’t like an audience. Also take a good look at your training methods. Sometimes our tone of voice or body language is psychologically intimidating for a sensitive dog. I find Border Collies do best with mostly positive training methods. Utilize techniques that lure your dog into making appropriate decisions so they feel they have some control in the matter. I’ve even seen Border Collies that are sort of a type A personality and if they are unsure as to whether they can complete a task perfectly it is best to just not even try, rather than fail. We have to encourage them to try and that there won’t be any repercussions for failing or performing less than perfectly.
Think of trying to teach a toddler to walk. It is hard work physically and emotionally! The child might decide it is better to just plop on their diaper padded bottom than to work hard and still end up on the floor. Encouragement and over the moon praise will motivate the kid to try much better than getting stern and demanding that steps are taken. Videotape yourself playing/training with your four-legged kid. It can be much easier to evaluate ourselves this way. You may not realize what your tone sounds like or what your body language looks like to your dog. Look into some online courses on marker training or even a good clicker class. There is real science behind the methodology and can dramatically increase your dog’s self-confidence and enjoyment of the activities you are asking her to participate in. Good Luck!
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. For a free consultation with Dierdra or to ask your dog behavior question, email www.CaliforniaCanineUnleashed.com.