Please Back Off

Not all dogs are as fortunate as Molly. Molly’s parents wrote to The Thinking Dog, asking for help getting people to understand that Molly needs her personal space. In this post, I am speaking for all dogs who are not as lucky as Molly.

Personal space is a cultural issue. Americans tend to like more of a bubble around them than people in some other countries. I’m not sure whether dogs in different countries or cultures have different needs for personal space, but I am positive that all of the dogs I know need people to respect that bubble. Especially people they don’t know well.

Dog bite stories in the media often say that “it came out of nowhere” or that the dog gave no warning signs. This is rarely true. Spending a few minutes looking at Facebook postings of photos and video of dogs with babies and children is a great way to gather photos of dogs showing dozens of warning signs or pleas for space. Watching those news videos of the “bites that came out of nowhere” also offers a catalog of behaviors that are clear warnings.

It’s not only children who do things that cause annoyance or stress to dogs: A particularly chilling video I’ve used in canine communication classes is one where a news anchor is severely bitten after putting her face right in the face of a stressed, overwhelmed dog — a dog who has spent the previous couple minutes (or more; it’s a short video) asking her to back off in every way a dog can.

The problem isn’t that the dogs are not giving fair warning, asking for help, or both; the problem is that most people aren’t listening or simply don’t understand the signs. Here’s a list of the most common stress signs:

  • Licking lips or nose
  • Turning the head away
  • Whale eye — wide eyes with the whites very clearly visible
  • Yawning
  • Ears back
  • Tail tucked
  • Scratching — self or the ground
  • Sniffing
  • Shaking or shaking off (as if shaking off water)
  • Bowing
  • Stress smile
  • Red eyes
  • Sweaty paws
  • Panting
  • Hypervigilance
  • Freezing

What do we do that is stressful or threatening to our dogs? Most dogs do not like being hugged or patted on the head. Frontal approach with direct eye contact is scary for many dogs. Many dislike rough petting or play hitting or people bending down, putting their faces right up close to the dog’s face and kissing or blowing at them or baby-talking them. In short, if you would be annoyed if someone did it to you, don’t do it to a dog, especially a dog you don’t really know. This doesn’t mean you can’t cuddle your dog; it means you should look for cues that he is enjoying — or uncomfortable with — what you are doing, and respond accordingly.

Some of the signs listed above do double duty: They are also what is commonly called “calming signals.” These are body language cues that dogs use to calm themselves or others. Dogs will direct calming signals to other dogs and to humans. A well-socialized dog responds appropriately — backing off, giving the dog some space, or responding with calming signals of his own. Unfortunately,  the signals are often subtle and, when noticed, misunderstood by many humans.

Cali stress
Stressed Cali

For example, the smile. A smiling dog might be a happy dog; depends on the smile. These photos show a happy Cali and a stressed Cali. She’s “smiling” in both. But in the relaxed, happy photo, Cali’s eyes are soft, her smile is loose and relaxed; in the stress photo, her eyes are hard and tense, and her mouth is tighter. For many additional (better) photos of stress, take a look at these blog posts by Eileenanddogs: “Dog Facial Expressions: Stress” and “Is That ‘Smiling’ Dog Happy?

 

Happy Cali
Happy Cali

Other common calming signals that could be early signs of discomfort or stress are the licking the lips or nose, yawning, and turning the head away. When you notice these subtle signs, it’s a good idea to remove your dog from a situation that is becoming unbearable for him. Some dogs lick submissively — no, the dog is not “kissing” you because he’s enjoying the close attention — or shake or try to leave or hide behind their owners.

If the dog can’t escape the situation and the “aggressor” doesn’t back off, the dog is likely to escalate. Bared teeth, soft growls, or air snaps might be the first steps when a dog feels that he has no choice but to defend himself. And if the owners have taught the dog never to growl, as so many believe they should … the dog might just bite “without (obvious) warning.”

We’re our dogs protectors. It is our job to learn their stressors, heed their calls for help, and remove them from stressful or overwhelming situations.

Additional Resources

Want to learn more about dogs’ stress signals? Here are some articles and blog posts that offer good info and advice:

Your Dog Hates Hugs, by Melissa Dahl

It’s Only Funny Until Your Dog Runs Out of Spoons, E. Foley, Your Dog’s Friend blog

You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure, eileenanddogs blog

The Gift of Growl, Pat Miller

Preventing Dog Bites, Patricia McConnell

A Canine Stress Dictionary, and Signs That Your Dog Has Stress, and so much more on the Whole Dog Journal website

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Please Back Off

  1. […] These are similar to — but far more subtle and easier to miss than — calming signals. Calming signals are dog body language cues that offer insight into how the dog is feeling, and they can be involuntary. But dogs can actively choose to offer calming signals, and they often do so — to other dogs and to humans, as targeted communication. But even involuntary calming signals are communicative. Examples of calming signals are the lip-licks and yawns of a stressed dog. These serve to both self-soothe (calm the dog) and tell others that she’s stressed. More examples are given in Please Back Off. […]

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