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 serious.

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 Tucking:

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