© 2010 Niki Tudge
Featured in ‘The New Barker’ Magazine August 2010
All behaviors that dogs exhibit are designed to either access pleasurable situations or avoid and escape unpleasant situations. A dog’s communication systems are much ritualized and designed to avoid or cutoff conflict. This has made dogs as a species very successful in terms of their numbers and their variety. Things go awry when we humans misread the signals dogs send us leaving them helpless to effectively communicate their feelings to us. We cannot know or understand what dogs think and vice-versa. What we can do is understand canine body language, observe them as we interact with them and then respond appropriately. ‘Talking dog’ is simple if you remember a few important rules and it will make interacting with dogs fun and safe. The dogs you come into contact with will really appreciate it.
The types of social behaviors dogs demonstrate can be broadly grouped into either distance decreasing or distance increasing. A dog uses distance decreasing behaviors to promote approach, play and continued interaction. A lumbering soft gait, relaxed body and a relaxed face indicate the dog is encouraging interaction. Dogs who want to engage in play will demonstrate the ‘play bow,’ a posture where the dog bows the front of his/her body so that the front legs are parallel to the ground while the hindquarters remain in the standing position, the dog may offer you a paw, lean into you or rub against you.
Distance increasing signals vary and can be easily misread. The distance increasing signals we all seem to ‘get’ are when a dog stands upright making each part of their body appear as large as possible, weight on the front legs, upright tail, upright ears, piloerection (the hair on their back stands up), and the dog will bark or growl. We seem to instinctively react to these signals and take them as the warning they are.
The distance increasing signals that we commonly misinterpret are the more appeasing behaviors dogs demonstrate. Dogs use these appeasement behaviors to make friendly encounters more reliable and to help them pacify what they anticipate to be a hostile encounter if escape is impossible for them. These behaviors are a nonaggressive way to ‘cut off’ conflict. When a dog displays these behaviors we have to recognize that this is the dog’s way of showing us that they are unsure and a little scared.
You may see appeasement signals in one of two ways. Passive appeasement behaviors are easily misunderstood and are often labeled as ‘submissive.’ Dogs displaying passive appeasement will present themselves in a recumbent position exposing the underside of their body. The dog’s ears are typically back and down against the head and the tail is often tucked between the upper legs. Sometimes the dog will expel a small amount of urine while it waits for the attention to cease. The active appeasement dog is often incorrectly labeled as ‘excited’ or ‘overly friendly.’ They will often approach you with the whole rear-end wagging in a “U” shape allowing both its face and genital area to be inspected and they may be desperate to jump up and ‘get in your face’.
For humans then, it is important when meeting and greeting dogs to be able to recognize if a dog is friendly and wanting to greet you or if the dog is experiencing stress or fear. A conflicted dog will want to approach but is too scared or unsure of the outcome. Their body language will vacillate between displays of distance decreasing behaviors and distance increasing behaviors. Interacting with a dog that is conflicted can be risky. If you make a wrong move and the dog cannot avoid the approach then they may become aggressive. This is often the case with a fear biter. If a dog is demonstrating ambivalent, mixed signals then it is advisable to avoid sudden movements, and to allow the dog an escape route. Don’t force the meet and greet by moving toward the dog or having the dogs’ owner manipulate the dog toward you.
In general when you meet and greet a dog make sure you have a relaxed posture. Let the dog approach you, turn slightly to the side as this is less threatening for the dog than you standing in a full frontal position leaning over them. Always ask permission from the dog’s owner to pet their dog. Talk gently to the dog without making eye contact. It helps to crouch down and keep your hands by your side without making any sudden movements. When you have determined the dog is not showing any signs of stress or fear and their body language is relaxed and happy then you can slowly move your hand under their chin to stroke them. If the dog is showing passive appeasement signals, as described above, then step away, give them space and allow them to approach you on their terms and in their preferred timing.
It is important that we recognize a dog’s “cut off’ behaviors. ‘Cut off’ behaviors are designed to cut off the social contact. If, when greeting a dog, you don’t recognize that the dog is scared or stressed or you choose to ignore the dog’s communication and push forward with your approach you are unfairly pushing the dog into a situation where it may only be left with one option and not a favorable option to either dog or human.
Dogs will typically give plenty of warning if they are uncomfortable with something that another dog or a person is doing. These warning signs may include a direct stare, a rigid body, a growl and showing “whale eye” (flashing the whites of their eyes). The dog’s ears will be flat against the head and they may have a closed tense mouth, if you see any of these signals then stop what you are doing immediately and allow the dog to slowly back away.
Dogs are wonderful animals that love and need to be a part of our social lives. But, like people, their personalities range from being social butterflies to wallflowers. Tailor your approach and greeting style based on the communication they are giving you. Dogs are very clear with their intentions and emotions and respond appropriately to ours. Remember our body language and approach speaks louder than our words to a dog.
Niki Tudge is the owner and founder of The DogSmith, America’s Dog Training, Dog Walking and Pet Care Franchise.