When encountering dogs, we tend to focus on their vocalizations and the presence of wagging tails to determine if it's appropriate to pet them. However, these two characteristics do not present the entire picture of how dogs react when people approach and touch them.
Every year almost 500,000 people — mostly children — are bitten by dogs. People reporting biting incidents might state that the "dog wasn't provoked," but in many situations the dogs might have exhibited body language cues that conveyed subtle warning signals not observed by adults and especially children.
To communicate, dogs depend on visual and sensory cues, while humans rely on verbal ones. These different styles of communication might result in conflicts between dogs and humans.
"We just need to learn to listen to our dogs with our eyes," said Dr. Jacqueline C. Nelson, who wrote the opening chapter of the definitive dog behavior book "Decoding Your Dog." Nelson advises that we study canine language to better understand a dog's emotional status and predict what behaviors might result.
Because dogs use body postures, facial expressions and vocalizations to communicate, Nelson recommends that it is helpful to examine each body part individually and then look at the entire dog and the situation to determine what message the dog is communicating.
Nelson provides a systematic table of canine body language features by describing specific body parts, their position and what they can mean.
• Eyes. A fixed stare might convey a threat, challenge or confidence from a dog. A casual gaze might mean the dog is calm. Fear is noted in dogs whose pupils are enlarged, when the whites of the eyes are visible or if the eyes are quickly darting.
• Ears. A calm dog's ears will be in a relaxed, neutral position. An alert, attentive or aggressive dog's ear position will be pricked or forward.
• Mouth. A hot, anxious or excited dog will pant. Anxious dogs also present lip-licking and tongue-flicking behaviors. Tired or anxious dogs might yawn. Aggressive dogs snarl — lip curled and showing teeth. Aggressive or playful dogs might growl. Reactive, excited, playful, aggressive or anxious dogs bark.
• Tail. An alert dog's tail is held upward and still. An excited dog's tail is up and wags quickly. A calm dog's tail is held in a neutral, relaxed position. A fearful, anxious or submissive dog's tail is held down and might be tucked against the abdomen.
• Body carriage. A calm dog will carry itself in a soft or relaxed manner. An alert or aggressive dog is tense or stiff and the dog's hackles might be raised. Submissive dogs might roll over on their backs.
Our own body language and actions might trigger adverse and possibly violent responses from dogs. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, consultant for Animal Planet, said a dog's natural instinct is to look away from another dog's eyes to avoid a confrontation. He advises that we should never stare at a dog's eyes because it issues a challenge and stimulates a dog to growl, which might result in the dog exhibiting aggressive behavior. A submissive, fearful dog might respond to staring by squatting or rolling and urinating.
Dodman lists other offensive human body language behaviors that include: patting the top of a dog's head, grabbing a dog by the scruff of the neck or muzzle, and hugging a dug around the neck. How we approach dogs might also be perceived by them as a challenge or threat. Dodman advises people to not walk directly toward a dog they don't know, or if the dog is resting, eating or chewing on a toy. A fearful dog perceives a sudden or direct approach by humans as threatening. Instead, we might approach such dogs indirectly in a curved manner — sideways without direct eye contact — while softly tapping a thigh to resemble a dog's tail wagging. According to Dodman, fearful dogs might be less afraid of people who are sitting on the floor or drop down on one knee.
To prevent potential miscommunication problems between humans and dogs:
• Model appropriate interactive behavior with your dog for children to observe.
• Always provide supervision when children and dogs are together.
• Discourage family members from staring at dogs.
• Consult with a certified trainer or behaviorist who utilizes positive training techniques to help your dog learn basic obedience skills.
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• Always "listen with your eyes" and study your dog's body language to interpret what he is trying to say.