It’s National Dog Bite Prevention week, and my discussion continues with a review of the different body language and vocalizations that dogs elicit when they are fearful or anxious. First off, I want everyone to know that growling is good! Growling is a definitive warning that a dog is scared and it is meant to create distance. If a dog growls at you, it means he or she is uncomfortable and potentially afraid and it is a much better warning than a snap or a bite. In most cases, the best thing to do when a dog growls at you is to give him or her space… stop, turn around, and walk away. Some dogs will do well with a redirection cue, but I never, EVER recommend punishing a growl. If you do, your dog will stop giving you a growl as a warning, and the next step is a snap or a bite. If your dog growls at you or anyone else, please get professional help and don’t try and ‘fix’ the behavior on your own.
There are several calming signals that dogs show when they are fearful, anxious, adrenalized or uncomfortable. These behaviors are innate and powerful. Often, people tell me that their dog bit someone ‘out of nowhere’, but it is highly, highly likely that the dog showed at least 2-3 of these calming signals. These are also called stop signals. If you encounter a dog who is exhibiting any of these behaviors, please give him or her space… just walk away, and please don’t keep petting him or her!
- Lip licking
- Tongue flicking
- Lick and chew
- Shaking Off
- Sniffing (for avoidance)
- Freezing (becoming stiff)
- Turning his or her head
- Whale eye (you can see the whites of the eye, but the head isn’t turned- just the eyes)
- Smiling (*not really a smile, but it looks like one)
- And believe it or not, tail wagging can be a sign of stress, not pleasure
If your dog shows any of these signs when greeting people, I would recommend finding a positive trainer to help you build confidence and decrease underlying anxiety. While all of these behaviors are normal for a stressed dog, your dog can learn a new emotional association to the scary stimulus with the right behavior modification program. The bottom line is that every dog shows calming signals and it’s up to us humans to read them and respond appropriately. Remember, bites don’t happen out of the blue!