Baker: Your dog is talking, are you listening?
June 8, 2016
Dogs are always talking, but WE seldom listen. Dogs use sounds like barking and whining to convey information, but most of their communication is through body language. Dogs communicate what they need (hunger, pain), their state of mind (happy, anxious, fearful), and what they are going to do (run, bite). This communication is not centered on the human, it's about what the dog perceives must happen to ensure the dog's personal safety or well-being. The dog's communication and signals are to drive behaviors in others (feed me, give me space, get me outta of here, go away, need to pee) so that the dog is safe. Sometimes, when a dog's attempts at communicating to their humans go unnoticed, they will resort to other behaviors (usually bad) to get what they need or make a perceived threat go away. Often, these signals that we assume mean one thing are actually the dog telling us the exact opposite. For example, that wagging tail you think is an invitation to pet, is actually a signal of an imminent bite.
A socially experienced dog knows the language of keeping the peace or deference he receives from other dogs and reciprocates with his own signals. This is how dogs avoid confrontation and initiate play. A less socially experienced dog might take advantage of this deference and attempt to control or be aggressive in the situation. This is the harm of taking a pup away from its mother and littermates too early. The puppy becomes socially inept in the dog world and may not play well with others.
Dogs are keen observers. They are watching and learning from you every minute you are with them. They know when you are sad, happy, mad or tired. Your relationship with your dog can reach new levels if you just take the time to listen to their body language. Listen and respect what it is they are trying to say. To get you started, here are some common signals:
When dogs are stressed and nervous they exhibit many different kinds of behavior that either help relieve the stress they are feeling, or lessen a perceived threat. This type of language helps the dog to self-calm by moving attention away from the dog or by allowing the dog to release built-up energy or frustration. These are all things that dogs do anyway, so it's important to look at the context to determine whether the dog is feeling anxious. For example, if a child is hugging the dog and he yawns and starts licking them all over, then it's a displacement behavior. This is a behavior that usually occurs when an animal is torn between two conflicting desires. In this case, the dog doesn't want to hurt the child, loves the child, but is uncomfortable with the hugging and wants it to stop. The yawn says I'm uncomfortable and the licking is an attempt to make the child move.
Yawning – Some dogs always yawn when having their picture taken because the camera makes them nervous. Remember to consider the situation as dogs also yawn because they are tired.
Lip licking or tongue flicking – Watch your dog when you tell him he can't have what is in your hand.
Whale Eye – This is when you can see the whites of a dog's eye when the dog turns his head away but keeps looking at a perceived threat. Whale Eye with body stiffness usually means a bite is coming next. This happens very frequently when you lean over a strange dog in attempt to pet, hug or give him a smooch. This is when people claim, the dog bit out of now where. Not so! There was probably a lip lick in there too.
Furrowed brow – the dog is worried about something in the environment
Sniffing – dogs will sniff to calm themselves down, but it also calms dogs in the distant as well. As if to say to the other dog," I'm no threat, just hanging here minding my own business". You can diffuse an aggressive situation by getting the dogs noses to the ground.
Shake off – Dogs will release stress and tension by shaking their bodies as if wet. This happens frequently when arousal levels get to high during play. One or both dogs will break off and shake.
Panting – If the dog isn't hot and is panting, it's because of stress. This kind of panting does not produce a lot of saliva.
Jumping up – Dog is seeking comfort from you as if to hug you.
Sweating Paws – Dogs sweat through their paws just as humans sweat when they are nervous.
Scratching when not itchy. If you push too hard in training, the dog will sit down and scratch.
Chewing – biting at the paws or other body part.
Urination or defecation. This is a dog who is REALLY stressed.
Sometimes dogs are more obvious when they feel anxious and want to remove themselves from a situation. Please do not force a dog to stay in a situation in which he feels anxious, especially if children are the source of that anxiety.
Dog walks away – he is uncomfortable, let him leave and give him a safe place to go else next time he may bite.
Head turn – The dog will turn his head away as a gesture of appeasement. Watch what your dog does when you approach quickly to pet him.
Front paw lift – basically saying please don't hurt me.
Averting the Eyes
Tail Between the Legs
Curved or lowered body
Ears pinned back
Barking and/or retreating
SIGNS OF AROUSAL
These are signs that the dog interested in something or trying to decide on a course of action. Sometimes these signs can predict curiosity, play and other times aggression. Again, it depends on the situation and whether or not there are any other stress signals included. This is the type of behavior usually exhibited in the presence of prey. The dog is not receptive to attention (such as petting) in this moment.
Stiff slow wagging tail
Hackles up – Fur on back of shoulders and base of the tail are erect.
SIGNS OF AGGRESSION
Rarely is a dog inherently aggressive. If that is the case, there is usually a medical problem going on or a severe case of abuse and neglect. Yes, dogs like humans have moments of aggression. In dogs, 95% of the time these moments are caused by fear or pain and the dog feels it has no way out. Dogs just happen to have and use their sharp teeth when in the presence of a threat with no retreat. All dogs have different triggers and thresholds and it doesn't matter if the triggers/thresholds make sense to the human; it only matters how the dog is interpreting the environment. Dogs do not bite out of nowhere. They exhibit these stress and arousal signals before a bite happens. The problem is those signals have been ignored, misinterpreted, or punished out of them. When all the above signals are being ignored, you may see the following. All of which can mean a bite is imminent, especially when two or more signals happen together.
Freeze – dog becomes suddenly stiff
Lip curl – curls his lips so you can see his teeth
Hard Stare – watch out!
Body forward, and low while staring
Tail high and tight with either a fast, frantic wag, or no wag at all.
Air Snapping – Dog opens mouth, lunges and bites the air. No, you did not move quick enough to avoid the bite, he purposefully missed.
Keep in mind, dogs are much faster than humans. Most of the time, if they bite, it is still a warning and generally do not make contact, or just cause minimal injury as we humans have tender skin. Their intention is to make the threat back-off, not to harm. Always remember that if a dog bites and misses, they intended to miss. Do not punish the warning signals out of the dog. They are there to keep you safe! This doesn't mean you just have to accept your dog's fear or aggression, they can be changed, but it takes systematic training and the help of a behavior consultant is your best bet to getting started.
These are all signs that your dog is enjoying what is going on and is receptive to attention, affection, petting or play.
Panting with a relaxed expression or tongue hanging out to the side
Body is relaxed
Loose wagging tail
Head cocked to the side
Squinting and soft eyes
Tail thumping on the floor
Wiggly butt – this is a technical term.
play bow (front end down; rear end up; tail wagging)
My poor dog was 6-years -old before I started studying dog behavior and realized he really did not like being pet. That dog was so tolerant of me and my family! When I finally understood what he was telling me and I started to respect his feelings and became his advocate, our relationship turned. He used to growl at puppies and was not a fan of small children. When I started listening to his early signals of discomfort and removed him from or took care of whatever was bothering him, instead of punishing him, he started to love children and puppies. They could be close to him because he knew I was listening and would get him out of any situation if it became too much.
Victoria Baker with Furever Behavior Dog Training, provides gentle, modern, science-based training for dogs and their people in the Grand County area. You may contact her at http://www.fureverbehavior.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.