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My dog shakes his body to break from ‘stay’

I want to re-visit the “dog body shake” because I rarely see it discussed anywhere else.

I’m curious, do you think dogs consciously use the “body shake” or the “collar scratch” to break from a stay position? Or, is this always a subconscious thing?

I think most of the time the body shake is a subconscious way to relieve or avoid stress (Oh, back from a walk – phew! Time to relax!). But I think it can also be a behavior the dog learns to use to his advantage to avoid doing something.

What the heck is the ‘dog body shake?’

My dog shakes his body

The “dog body shake” is when a dog shakes his whole body as though he’s getting out of the water, but really he’s already dry. It’s often used when a dog is transitioning from one thing to another (done playing, time to relax) or to relieve minor stress (meeting that dog was fun, time to relax).

If you think about it, you probably do you own version of the body shake to relieve some minor stress or to transition from one thing to another. For example, when I reach the starting line of a race I’ll do a little body shake to transition into racing mode. Or, after I return from meeting someone new I might let out an audible sigh which actually involves loosening any tension, almost like a “body shake.”

For me, and I think for dogs, these types of actions are subconscious. I do not choose to sigh after meeting someone new. It just happens. My dog does not choose to “shake it off” after passing another dog on a walk. It just happens.

What about when a dog uses the body shake to break from stay?

The perfect example of this is an obedience class. If you observe the other owners in a class, especially in a beginner’s class, you will see them place their dogs into the sit position when asked by the trainer. After being placed in a sit, it’s almost guaranteed a few of the dogs will scratch themselves around the collar or do a little body shake and pop right back up. “What’s next?!”

I think this reaction is subconscious for the majority of these dogs. They’re still learning what to do. The class environment is stressful or at least exciting to most of them. They may or may not have worked on the sit command at home. They probably haven’t learned that “sit” means “sit and remain sitting until I release you.”

But then, there is always a dog in class who seems to have learned he can control his owner with these moves. For example, the owner will tell her dog to sit, and the dog immediately shakes his body and begins sniffing something on the ground. The owner then waits patiently for the dog to stop sniffing, which could take minutes, and then asks the dog to sit again.

Or, the owner asks her dog to heel, and immediately the dog sits down and dramatically scratches around her collar for a good 45 seconds. Then, as the owner waits patiently, the dog does an Oscar-winning body shake and then decides to heel.

I’m not saying this is downright “deviant” behavior, but to me it’s a pretty clear signal that the dog is saying “I will do this on my own terms. Thank you very much.”

So, if you’re aware this is happening with your own dog and you don’t really care, that’s fine. But if you want your dog to listen to you, then stop waiting around and instead just make it happen.

You don’t have to worry about being – God forbid! – dominant. Just make him do what you asked. If you told your dog to sit, put him in a sit position. I don’t care how you do it. Just make it happen. If you told your dog to heel, then start walking. Tug on the leash if you want. Use treats if you want. Just walk and get your dog to follow.

And the truth comes out. Ace is outsmarting me!

So, what is happening when Ace breaks from a stay position in a low-stress, non-challenging situation by shaking his body and then walking up to me?

I have to say, he’s beating me in chess.

I think he’s maybe a bit bored and definitely testing my limits just like some of those young dogs in beginning obedience class.

To me, it seems like Ace is pushing the limits to see what he can get away with (quite a lot, lately!). As he’s gotten older, he’s definitely learned to ignore me more, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s because I’m much easier on him now than I used to be. I don’t really care when he breaks from stay in the living room.

To do this, he does the body shake and then walks up to me swaying his tail and body in a relaxed, submissive way. I’m sure he’s responding to my expression and body language that says “Oh you did something wrong but you’re cute anyway.” So I’m totally rewarding and encouraging the behavior. Go figure. I’m just being honest here.

Do I want a perfect, rock-solid, obedient dog? Not really. So I’m a little loose with my rules, and my dog knows it.

Don’t assume the body shake is deviant behavior.

I want to stress that the majority of the time, the dog body shake is a subconscious behavior due to the dog feeling stressed or overwhelmed. It’s so important to be aware of this so we can either remove our dogs from the stressful situations or help them learn to cope.

For example, my dog will do the body shake at the dog park if he’s being pestered by a younger dog. The younger, higher-energy dog might keep jumping at Ace or nipping at him, and Ace will shake himself off and try to walk away. While a growl or a snap would get his point across better, I appreciate that my dog typically does not resort to growling. I can help him out here by noticing when he’s feeling stressed and intervening.

In this situation, I would probably distract the younger dog or I might encourage Ace to play if it appears he just needs some encouragement. Or, it might be best to just take my dog and walk away, which is usually what I do. If Ace doesn’t seem to want to play, I don’t force him to play.

The more aware we are as owners, the better. I know so many dog fights and scuffles could be prevented if the owners knew to watch for and recognize these “subtle” hints that are actually quite obvious if you know what to look for.

Here is my list of signs a dog is stressed.

But I really want to hear from you on this topic.

1. Does your dog do the “body shake”?

2. Does it seem to be a subconscious thing?

3. Does your dog ever seem to purposely decide to do the body shake to avoid doing something?

4. Has your dog ever done the body shake when he’s feeling stressed or overwhelmed?

Let me know! Does your dog shake his body?

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