Pathway to a Dog Bite – Interpreting Dog Behavior

Spring is officially
here, and pleasant weather is drawing people and their pets outside more
frequently. A higher volume of pets on sidewalks, trails, and inside dog parks
means an increased risk of dog bites. Below, we will discuss early warning
signs to be on the lookout for when being in close proximity to other canines.
Some of these warnings may be easily recognizable, but others may be more
imperceptible to the untrained eye. In either case, learning these warning
signs could ensure the safety of both pets and owners, allowing for more fun
filled hours outside for all.

1. Yawning/Licking
Lips/Avoiding Eye Contact:

These are usually some of
the first signs that indicate a dog is uncomfortable or anxious. Cease whatever
activity is causing this reaction and allow the dog the opportunity to remove
themselves from the situation so it doesn’t escalate into something more

2. Turning Body
Away/Sitting/Pawing/Walking Away:

This is typically a
warning that the dog is trying to remove themselves from a situation that is
making them uncomfortable, or put a stop to unwanted stimulation. Stop what you
are doing, respect the dog, and stop any physical contact he/she is reacting
adversely to.

3. Seeing the Whites of
Eyes (Sclera)/Tense Staring:

Also referred to as
“whale eyeing” by trainers, this is a clear expression of anxiety.
The dogs’ eyes may also appear to be wider than normal and they may be staring
intently at you, tracking your every move. If this happens, it is wise to
slowly look away and give the dog space. Humans have a similar ocular response
to fear where the eyes will widen and look intently at a perceived threat.
Scientists theorize that our scleras are highly visible to make it easy to
infer where other individuals are looking and as a form of nonverbal
communication in what is called, the Cooperative Eye Hypothesis. Animal
researchers have determined that through the process of domestication, dogs
have developed the ability to pick up visual cues from the eyes of humans, and
only look to their human companions for this type of visual input. Canines do
not appear to use this form of communication with each other. (1)

4. Tail Wagging/Tail

Tail wagging as a
characteristic of aggression seems confusing because we normally surmise that a
dog wags his/her tail to exhibit happiness or excitement. However, it is
important to note the overall body language that is paired with the tail wag to
understand how to interpret it. If the dog is staring at someone or at another
dog while standing very still with a raised tail that is wagging slowly and
deliberately, you should be on alert. This is an anxious dog. A happy or
excited dog usually has a noticeable body wiggle that accompanies the wag. Tail
tucking is a sign that the dog may be fearful, or is uncomfortable and
experiencing anxiety. An anxious or fearful dog can be a dangerous dog.

5. Stiffening/Rigid Body:

Dogs that are on edge
will usually stand with their shoulders squared towards the perceived threat.
The body will be stiff and still, the tail will be raised, and the ears will
most likely be perked up on alert. Try to determine what they are focused on
and concerned about, and do your best to separate the dog from this threat.

6. Fur Standing Up:

If you see a dog with
their hackles (the hairs along the shoulder blades and back of a dog) raised,
he/she is communicating to you that they are alarmed and on high alert. Slowly
back away, and if possible, get rid of the perceived threat(s) or visually
block their view to what is upsetting them, so they can calm down.

7. Turning Head
Away/Growling/Snapping Teeth:

Dogs exhibiting these
signs are trying to verbally tell you to stop what you are doing and back away.
Allow the dog ample space and time to return to a level of personal comfort. If
the dog is directing this reaction towards another dog in the area, it is best
to have the other dog exit the area rather than trying to get the spooked
animal to leave. This will help diffuse the situation quicker, and with less
stress to all involved.

In conclusion, if you are
interacting with a dog or are in close proximity to one who exhibits any or all
of these behaviors, it is best to cease eye contact, stop what you are doing,
and give the dog space and the opportunity to remove themselves from the
uncomfortable situation. Always remember safety first, and have fun out there!

Cited Source:

(1) The Secret Life of the Dog, BBC Documentary

CREDIT: Robin Laclede

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