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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Communication Goes Two Ways

An entire industry, dog training, is dedicated to teaching dogs to understand what we want. Even dog owners who don’t go to training classes or hire private trainers spend a lot of time trying to communicate to their dogs (and often being frustrated at their apparent failures). Literally hundreds of books offer tips for teaching dogs to understand what we tell them.
What about helping us understand what our dogs are saying?
Our dogs are excellent communicators. Even the ones who don’t seem all that smart because they never do what their moms and dads ask probably are reading Mom, Dad, and all other humans better than any human ever could. Those dogs are also, most likely, using their whole bodies, putting heart and soul into trying to tell those very humans what they need, want, and feel.
We’re just very poor listeners.
Dogs use their tails, their ears, their hackles, their voices to communicate. A slight lift of a lip tells a story, as do exposed teeth, a lowered head, a low, slow tail wag. Each bark, yip, and growl has a different meaning. All dog owners should strive for a general understanding of what dogs in general say with their bodies.
The most important place to start, I think, is recognizing when a dog is uncomfortable, stressed, or afraid. Since some of the body language can look similar to friendly or happy dog body language, many people miss important signs.
For example, that wagging tail. It means a happy dog, right? Not always. Dogs’ tail wags are very nuanced. A tail held high and wagged fast generally means an excited or happy dog, but a lower, slower wag can be a sign of apprehension or discomfort. If the tail is stiff, or the tail is moving slowly and the rest of the dog’s body is stiff, you are not looking at a happy dog.

Cali relaxed

“Smiling dogs” are another area of confusion. If the dog’s lips are pulled back in what looks like a smile, and her eyes are soft and her tail is wagging loosely, she’s happy. But if the eyes are hard or are darting between you and someone or something else or the hackles are up, you are more likely looking at a stress smile. That dog is scared or stressed.
Take a look at these photos of Cali (when she was a much younger puppy). The right-hand photo shows her with soft eyes, and her mouth is relaxed. She looks soft. Happy. But the photo on the left (below) shows stress. Her eyes are hard and scared. Her mouth is more rigid.

Cali stress

Other signs of stress? Sweaty paws, furrowed brow, ears plastered back against the head, repeated lip licking or yawning, tail low or tucked, stiff posture, and panting. Many dogs will refuse treats in a stressful situation. Watch for avoidance behaviors: Some will sniff the ground when faced with a strange dog or even try to walk away.
A general understanding of what dogs’ body language means is important for anyone who spends time around dogs. But it’s even more valuable to invest some effort in learning your own dog’s body language and vocal vocabulary. What are her stress signs? How does she show you affection, share joy, express empathy? Learning her cues will strengthen your relationship.
Then, you can take the next step and start giving your dog ways to ask for what she needs!