Signals, it's all about signals. Dogs communicate via body language and vocal sounds when needed. So often I hear "what the heck was that about," from an owner reacting to a behavior that they could not explain which their dog exhibited. More than likely the dog gave off lots of clues as to what was coming but they were missed. This leaves a human with their hands in the air saying "what?????"
We had a meeting the other day with a little dog. Luke approached on his tiptoes as he often does and sniffed the dog. The other dog seemed okay; a bit apprehensive but wanting to interact. I was watching the interaction like a hawk and saw the small dog's tail start to rise and tongue flick in and out. "That's it" I said, the dog is uncomfortable. "What?" the other person said to me and so I explained. So small, almost humanly undetectable, the other dog had signaled that she was not comfortable. Luke being Luke wanted to establish that he is the King of the world and had ignored her signal. Had I not intervened, the little dog may have felt the need to snap to get her message across. This is when the humans often say "what the heck?"
Some dogs are more the silent type and opt to use avoidance instead of a whole pile of signals. Even though avoidance is simply turning away from the situation; it in itself speaks volumes and should be heeded. Avoidance can mean several things and be used in many different types of situations. Often when Luke is outside Elsa will stalk him; he sees it coming and turns his back to her to diffuse the situation. This ignoring technique works very well unless she is persistent and can out wait him. It is also used when a dog feels the need to remove themselves from a situation. Jessie often used avoidance when she found an exercise too difficult; typically involving food.
Avoidance is a commonly used signal but it should not be confused with shutting down. Shutting down is when a dog is so overwhelmed that they actually shutdown mentally. Nothing can be learned once a dog shuts down and it is to be avoided at all costs. If you really want to get inside your dog's head then you must learn to read their signals. That means all the tiny ones that we usually miss; although many people miss even the largest signals and then have their hands in the air and a giant question mark over their head. Dogs are not humans, they tell it like it is. They will show you how they are feeling; not in human communication methods but canine.
I regularly see people trying to get their very unwilling dog to interact with another dog or human. The dog is signaling like mad but the human is ignoring all the signals. So when the dog growls or snaps at the other dog or person they are aghast. It is very sad that humans put their dogs into these situations and then are totally and utterly shocked that their dog acted like a dog.
Once you can read your dog and become accustom to reading them regularly you can work on behavior issues must more readily. If you see the smallest glimmer of a signal letting you know what's on your dogs mind then you can get in there and work with it before it get to an unworkable level. I am a watcher, I am constantly watching and when I see my dogs react, I immediately react. Ears, face, body and tail; they are all in it together. The slightest movement from any of them can mean something, but what? Be aware, constantly alert to your surroundings, your dog's body language and your own responses. When each of these important parts connect; then we are aligned.