While humans are used to manifesting their emotions verbally, dogs, on the other paw, are masters in body communication. It’s up to us to decipher what they’re trying to tell us by paying closing attention to these subtle dog stress signals. Let’s unlock them now.
Dogs mainly communicate through their tails, facial expressions, ear and eye position and their body postures and movements. They may also vocalize too, but they primarily use their bodies. When studying dog body language, it’s important to look at the entire dog instead of focusing only on one, single body part. This is why you cannot rely on a tail wag only; in some cases a tail wag is far from being friendly! Don’t approach a dog whose body appears stiff, the hairs on his back (hackles) are raised and the tail is kept high and is moving rigidly in short arcs (flag tail.)
Dogs Have Incorporated Warning Systems
We often hear people claim that their dog bit out of the blue. It’s quite rare that a dog really “bites out of blue.” In most cases, the dog may have communicated his uneasiness through body language, but these subtle signs went unheeded. At times, this can happen when a dog is repeatedly reprimanded for growling. With the dog’s warning system no longer in effect, the dog goes straight to a bite.
Reputable dog trainer and owner of Peaceable Paws, Pat Miller, calls a dog’s growling a “gift,” something to treasure because dogs are communicating uneasiness and give us an opportunity to stop what we’re doing. It’s like a toddler’s way of using “his words.” When you punish the growl ,or the snapping or snarling behavior, you’re not addressing the underlying stress that triggered the behavior in the first place. Instead, now with punishment in addition to stress, the dog’s level of discomfort increases and the dog learns that it’s no longer safe to warn, so the end result is a dog who bites without warning. A very dangerous situation indeed!
In the previous article “Five things dogs like and love you to do” we claimed how many dogs aren’t that fond of being hugged and kissed, even though at times there may be exceptions to the rule. We also discussed how Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell looked at 50 pictures of dogs being hugged and noticed happy owners but uncomfortable dogs. While dogs may not growl, snap or bite when they’re hugged, they may manifest uneasiness in many subtle ways. Failure to read these signals may lead to a dog escalating which may lead to a bite. In this article, we will look look at some stress signals dogs give out that intend to say: “I am feeling uncomfortable.”
Watch For These Stress Signals in Dogs
As mentioned, dogs often rely on subtle body signals to communicate stress and uneasiness. It’s up to us to recognize these signals so we can take measures to prevent the dog from getting overwhelmed. Paying attention to these signals will make you a better owner as you’ll be able to be more in tune with your dog’s feeling. Yes, dogs have feeling too! So keep an eye on these:
Yawning. Watch the context in which this happens. Most likely, unless your dog was napping, he is manifesting that he is starting feeling tense.
Lip licking. Raise your hand hand if you have several pictures of your dog with his tongue out busy licking his lips or nose. This is not a coincidence. Many dogs are slightly nervous about getting photographed with that camera near their faces. You may also notice several lip licks when dogs are being hugged and they don’t like it.
Panting. Again, look at context. If it’s really hot and you haven’t taken your dog out for a romp, the yawning can be a stress signal. Often, the mouth looks tense and the ears are pinned back. Be careful when a dog is stressed and panting and then suddenly closes his mouth. This can be a sign that a snap or bite may be coming.
Whale eyes. This occurs when the white of the dog’s eyes show at the corner in a half-moon fashion. You often see this when a dog looks sharply in one direction and doesn’t like what you are doing.
Looking or turning away. You are moving towards a dog and the dog turns his head away or even turns away? The dog is asking to maintain distance. Children who chase or corner a dog that has been repeatedly and unsuccessfully trying to give “leave me alone” stress signals such as turning the head, often get bitten this way.
Ears pinned back. This can signal stress but again, you must look at the entire dog. There are times when the ears are pinned back and the dog is actually happy and likes the attention.
Scrolling fur. You often see this when dogs were just bathed or get up after rolling in the dust, but if you see it when a dog is interacting with people or other dogs, this may be a way of relieving tension after a stressful happening.
These are just a few of the many stress signals dogs give out. Stress signals may vary from one dog to another. There are many others including dilated eyes, breathing changes, low tail, lowered body, weight shifted back, slow movement, refusal to eat, pacing, sweaty paws and more. Watch your dog carefully for these signs. If you notice any stress signals in your dog, work on avoiding putting your dog in stressful situations and ask a professional for help in changing your dog’s emotions about them.
Tip: If you really want to train your eye, as stress signals often happen fast, watch videos of dogs interacting with children, people and other dogs and play them in slow motion. How many do you recognize?