Aggression….the Unwelcome House Guest

Special Note:  This post contains some mild graphic photos and descriptions of a recent dog bite that I received.

I work with all kinds of dogs….various breeds, ages, temperaments, backgrounds, etc.  Some dogs are friendly and happy to see me, and others….not so much!  I’ve been training dogs since 1983, and working with aggressive dogs since 2008.  In all that time, I’ve only been bitten twice.  I use very safe measures when working with edgy, or aggressive dogs.  But this past week, I encountered a really dangerous dog, and that’s the subject of this post….to educate my readers about what made this situation more serious than other aggressive dogs I see.

Earlier in the week, I had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of a 70 pound dog’s teeth being sunk into my leg.  Zero fun.  Naturally, since it’s June,  and since the dog had no prior bite history, I was wearing shorts, so I had no protection at all between skin and teeth.

This was at the hospital, right after they had cleaned up the bite.

Prior to training any dog, I do an evaluation.  I’m asking behavioral questions and observing the dog in his home where he’s comfortable and relaxed.  This also helps me watch the interactions between dog and owner, and I can learn a lot through simple observation.

When I evaluate dogs who are aggressive  with humans, I insist that they be leashed so that I can safely move and not be attacked.  Typically, I want the dog back from the door and at a safe distance from me so that I can I observe the dog’s behavior and arousal levels from a safe distance as I come in and conduct the evaluation.

Note the stiff body language, forward ears, fixated stare…..all aggressive body language!

Some dog owners are very understanding and have no issue doing that.  Others make it clearly known that they think I’m being overly concerned, especially when their dog has no bite history.  Some dogs do well being leashed, and others not so much.  The owners of the “not so much” dogs generally aren’t very happy leashing their dogs because they know that their dogs are likely to produce even worse behavior, which I completely understand!  However, that leash and a careful owner are the only things keeping me safe, and whether or not an owner likes my methods, they do have a responsibility to keep me safe as a guest in their home.

The dog who bit me this week had no bite history.  He was a physically healthy two year old dog in very good condition.   He had been to his vet the previous week for a complete physical including a blood work up to determine if there was any medical reason for his behavior.  He was given a clean bill of health, meaning that the vet could determine no medical reason for the dog to be behaving in an aggressive manner.  That’s a great place to start with any type of aggression….a medical work up!

This dog is likely close to the size of the dog who bit me. Look at the size of that open mouth! Large dogs pack a BIG punch when they bite!  The surface area of my bite is roughly 3″ x 4″….a very large area of my outer calf!

Two weeks earlier, he had nipped the pants legs of two males who came into the home, but responded well to them through the duration of their visit in the home.  He had never shown aversive behavior toward women, so his owner felt very confident that he would be completely fine with me.  He had no problem leashing his dog and was very compliant about keeping me safe during the evaluation.

As I came into the house, I heard minimal barking, and observed a small mount of piloerection (fur standing up on his shoulders and or back and rump) from the dog. He did pull hard to sniff me, but didn’t lunge or growl in any way. Comparing him to other dogs that I’ve evaluated who are aggressive to strangers in the home, I felt as if he was very calm at the door to be perfectly honest.

His owner let him come over to sniff, which didn’t make me very comfortable, but the dog wasn’t sending any super strong danger signals, and because he had no bite history and was early in his aggressive behavior, I felt as if he would likely be fine.  However, I should not have allowed the dog to get near me, because the piloerection was only at the shoulders and the base of his tail, which can be an indicator of a dog who is unpredictable and aggressive, which this dog later proved to be!

He sniffed me over as all dogs do.  He was polite, no muzzle punches or hard pokes.  Very typical, gentle sniffing.  He even licked my legs and hand very sweetly.  He did some minor gentle biting on my fingers as many dogs will do, but again, it was really pretty polite given the dog.  Looking back, the hand nibbles may have been the dog sending me a signal that he was thinking about a bite, and he was trying to intimidate…or testing the waters but deciding to wait for a more opportune moment.

As we walked through the house, we left the foyer and proceeded through the living room and into the kitchen, the dog was ahead of me.  I always send the dog ahead, so that I know where he is.  To stay safe with aggressive dogs, I try to always know where the dog is at all times.  He stopped at one point and looked back at me with a hard stare as if to challenge my walking into his space. I stopped and froze, waiting for his owner to call his dog to come along, and waiting to see the dog’s response to that nudge on the leash.  He quickly and easily complied with his owner’s direction, which is very good.  Many dogs do not want to break a fixated stare, and the hard eye will continue.  The dog was very compliant, and his body language was calm and relaxed as he went into the kitchen.

Great example of a hard eye and fixated stare. When dogs do this, it’s almost as if they are looking right through you.

As I came into the kitchen, I set my briefcase on a chair in their breakfast nook and got out my evaluation binder and pencil.  The dog was calm and relaxed, watching me without a hard stare or any negative body language.  His owner was talking to him, and offered some quick pets and ear rubs to reassure his dog.  I focused on writing some quick notes about the dog’s behavior at the front door.

At the moment of the bite, I was standing at the table in their breakfast nook, writing notes, not moving, not talking, looking right at the table and quietly writing.  I may have slightly shifted my weight from one foot to the next in the direction of the dog and his owner.  That’s it.  If I moved at all, it was very subtle, and nothing that would have been threatening or have startled the dog in any way.  The bite came within thirty seconds after his owner had sat down and petted him.

I thought the owner had his dog right at his side and I was positioned far enough away that the dog couldn’t get to me.  As a result, I was focused on my writing and I was not looking at the dog or even in his general direction.  I had some sense of where he was from my peripheral vision, but I thought I was safer than I actually was.  Hard lesson learned in a painful way.

Next thing I knew, I felt a quick little lick, a fairly gentle muzzle bump against my left leg and then boom! He gave me a quick, hard, and very sneaky bite and released his grip. One or two seconds from start to finish.  There was no time to back away and prevent the bite, as it came immediately after the lick and nudge.  After the bite, as I quickly jumped back, I instinctively grabbed my briefcase to create a protective barrier between myself and the dog in case he came back for more.

I can’t tell you what the dog was doing right after the bite.  I didn’t see him to know what his body language or facial expressions were like! His owner didn’t even realize that he had bitten me!  When I jumped and said, “Woah!!  Darn!!”  The dog’s owner asked if he had nipped at me!  He was as surprised as I was when I said, “No, your dog just bit me, and I’m bleeding all over your floor!!  Instead of looking at the dog, I was honestly focused on the streams of blood running down my leg and starting to pool on the floor at my foot, and trying to figure out what supplies I would need to get that stopped!

There were rivers of blood running down my leg creating a pool of blood at my foot about 10″ in diameter. I went to the hospital wearing a garbage bag so that I didn’t bleed all over the owner’s car!
After the nursing staff had cleaned me up. That sock was white when I put it on earlier in the day. It was about 85% bloodsoaked and I squished when I walked!

This is a very important post for me to write, because this dog was absolutely a seriously dangerous dog and his owner never knew it!  Clearly, the owner had noticed a negative shift in his dog’s behavior and that’s why I was there to evaluate him, but this situation was honestly far more dangerous than many aggressive dogs that I evaluate.  Here’s why:

  • This dog bit while completely unprovoked.  I did nothing at all to create a venue that would have made the dog startle and react, or feel threatened in any way.
  • There was absolutely no warning at all, aside from a small nose bump.  He didn’t growl, posture, snarl, or give me any obvious indication that he was going to bite me.  He was Ninja-like….and sneaky!
  • He had already received me into his home, although it’s definitely debatable about how comfortable he was having me there.  With stranger aggression, most aggressive dogs will bite right at the door.  This dog greeted me fairly well at the door, but seemed to wait for a chance to offer a hard bite when he felt that it would be more opportune.
  • Dogs who are stealthy and sneaky pose a much higher bite risk because they are unpredictable.  When there are unknown triggers, it’s impossible to moderate the dog’s behavior, and an owner is left with a very dangerous dog who is honestly more liability than asset.

At at a recent vet visit with Rugby, one of the vet techs who often helps treat Rugby said something I really liked!  She said, “Rugby is an honest dog.  You always know where you stand with him, and he always tells you if you’re crossing a line with him.  He gives you time to back off.”  That really made me smile, because I completely agree!

Rugby is an edgy dog to be sure.  He absolutely is.  But he has pretty clear triggers, and for the most part, he will give a clear warning that he’s uncomfortable.  That’s an honest dog.  He clearly doesn’t want to bite, and he’s willing to wait to see if the humans understand his position and respond accordingly.  That’s fair.

Rugby will often “Resource guard.” Note the paw over his treasure, his lowered head and strong eye. If anyone continues to approach, the head will get lower, his eye harder, and he will growl an ugly growl. Never approach a dog who is guarding a treasure of any kind!!

The dog who bit me was sneaky.  Unpredictable.  He did a bait and switch with me, letting me think he was okay with me, when instead, he was simply waiting for a more opportune moment to strike.  Those are the dogs that I honestly don’t feel safe training at all, bite history or not.  I never feel safe with them.  And honestly, those are dogs that are not likely to work through their aggressive behavior to ever be trusted.  Ever.

So how are dangerous dogs like this created?  That’s always challenging to know.  It’s generally a lot of things all coming together like a perfect storm!

  • The first consideration is the genetic makeup of the dog.  Nurture will never trump  nature, and if there’s a history of  aggressive behavior in parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. there’s a good likelihood that there’s a wacky aggressive gene in the DNA.  That’s something that simply can’t be fixed, and unfortunately, with rescue dogs who are mixed breeds, an owner is taking a chance with any rescue where backgrounds and breeding is unknown.  This should really, really be a very critical decision when someone is choosing a dominant, aggressive breed who is large and has the potential to really do some damage with his bite.
  • Right along with the genetic makeup of the dog is the early development of the puppy.  Diet is critical to healthy brain development, which will also include the dog’s ability to reason and think well.  Puppies who are abandoned, or who have gone without food for an extended time, have a poor diet, etc., are at a higher risk for incorrect brain development, and that can have far reaching effects years after the puppy grows up.
  • The next consideration is the physical health of the dog.  Dogs who don’t feel well are likely to be aggressive.  Ear infections, sore teeth, injuries, etc., can cause a dog to become very  dangerous in their responses to humans because they are simply trying to protect themselves and their space.  Their aggression can be unpredictable if owners don’t know that they aren’t feeling well.  Generally once the medical reason is cleared up, these dogs can be retrained to respond in a kind way.  The exception could be for dogs who are chronically ill, especially as young puppies, where their opinions about life are formed.   Some dogs are more able to process and forgive and trust again, while others simply can’t make that leap.
  • Lack of socializing dogs is huge!  HUGE!!  Did I mention that socialization is huge?  Think people, places, and things, when you are socializing your dog.  You want your dog to see all kinds of people, dogs, places and things, both animate and inanimate.  Ideally this starts as soon as you bring a new puppy or dog home, and continues well into adulthood.  Socializing your puppy teaches him how the world works, and exposes him to potentially scary things so that he learns not to be afraid of them.
  • Lack of training is also HUGE!!  Big.  Enormous!!  I wish all dogs could receive basic training, but large dogs, especially dominant aggressive breeds should be professionally trained at least to an intermediate level.  Puppies are so enthusiastic about training, and generally compliant, happy students.  In adolescence, dogs often start to throw their weight around as they begin to wear their big dog pants!  That’s most often when I see aggressive behavior rear its ugly head. When those dogs have had strong prior training, adolescence is a speed bump or small hurdle to get over.  We train right through it, most generally, and in a very short time, that dog is right back on track.  When aggressive adolescent dogs have never had any prior, professional training, it’s much more difficult to train through the aggression, and the odds go way down in terms of a dog successfully working through the aggressive behavior. (This is based upon my own experience in working with dogs)
This dog is guarding a bone. Note the “C” shape to his snarl. He has a hard eye, and is making a big display with his teeth to tell an approaching human or animal to back off!!

Sadly, for the dog that bit me, his life ended that afternoon.  His owner agreed that his dog was simply too dangerous to the public, and shortly after the bite, he was euthanized by his vet.

While my heart just broke for the family, I applaud the owner for making the choice that he did.  His dog was indeed a very  dangerous dog, and I honestly do not believe that training would have modified his behavior to the point where he would ever have been safe to the public.  It took courage to make the decision that the owner did, and as the recipient  of his solo bite, I can tell you that I felt a huge sense of relief knowing that this dog would not be biting anyone else….especially a child!

Don’t let this happen to your own dog!  Many, many times, aggression can be prevented.  Don’t wait!!  If your dog is exhibiting any questionable behavior, please consult a professional positive reinforcement dog trainer or behaviorist to get help immediately. Please remember that this dog went from nipping to a full bite in only two weeks time, so waiting may end up causing injury to a friend, family member, child, or another dog!  Once a dog is biting, there are very few options available, and bites often end up costing a dog his life!  Aggression does not go away by itself, so waiting will never make things better.  And just in case you aren’t quite sure….here’s another photo to remind you that aggression is not anything at all to play around with.  I’ve missed about a full week of work nursing this injury.  My physical injuries are healing up nicely, but my heart will never forget that this bite cost a dog his life.  I’ll have more than one kind of scar to carry through life as a result of this bite, and that’s not anything I wish for anyone else!

Two days after the original bite.

 

 

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Keeping Kids Safe With Dogs

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This is a face bite waiting to happen….

It’s reported that more than 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites every year, and more than half of these are children. Children between the ages of 5-9 are most often the ones who are bitten.  Those are some staggering statistics!

A wonderful resource for parents is www.doggonesafe.com.  I highly recommend it!  It’s a really wonderful website!  There is wonderful information about dog and kid safety, and there are all sorts of great practical guidelines and pictures with great descriptions to help parents work with their children in order to educate and keep them safe as well.  There are kid pages geared to children, and great videos that are practical and help children understand how dogs learn, behave, and also how to stay safe!

Part of the reason dogs have issues with kids is because kids are simply unpredictable to a dog.  Sometimes they pet gently, and sometimes they pull on their ears….just to see what happens.  Kids are just kids, and they don’t always follow clearly defined rules which are set out for them.  Dogs never know what they are going to get from kids, so they are often a bit nervous around them right from the start.

Kids also tend to generalize all dogs with their dog at home.  In other words, kids tend to think that if their own dog lets them do something, then ALL dogs will let them do that, and that’s simply not true at all!  Dogs will often allow their own kids to do things that they won’t tolerate from other kids, so it’s often the neighbor’s kids or their friends or cousins who are bitten….or your child in their home!

Tips for Keeping Children Safe With a Dog….

I work with many families as I train dogs, and I see some good and bad things when I’m working to train a dog in these homes.  Here are some general tips I have created based upon what I see every day!  The webpage I referred to earlier in the blog has many more tips that are well worth reading!

  • Children should never be left alone with dogs! Even patient, understanding dogs can bite when frightened or hurt, and it’s never worth taking chances!
  • Educate yourself in how dogs communicate stress or anxiety.  Know what you are seeing!  Missing key cues from your dog can result in a bite! (Please refer to a recent blog post “Learn to Recognize Stress Signals From Your Dog” for help in seeing calming signals that your dog will be using when he feels stressed).
    • When stress signals are present, it’s very important that you remove the children from the situation to prevent anything from escalating, and also to let your dog see that you will champion him.
  • Your dog should always have a safe place to go that is off limits to the kids.  A dog crate or dog bed can work nicely for this.  Children should be taught to respect this space as off limits, and allow the dog to be left alone while he is there.
  • Children should be taught proper behavior and handling around dogs.  Dogs should not have to “put up” with children mistreating him simply because he’s the family dog!
  • When a dog is playing by himself with a toy or chewing a bone, he is off limits!  This also needs to be true when a dog is eating, sleeping or drinking.  Children simply have no business bothering a dog in those situations!
  • I often see children hugging their family dog or laying on the floor face to face.  This is very dangerous and can result in a face bite to your child.
  • ALWAYS be sure to ask if there is a dog in a home that your child will visit.  I typically recommend asking that the other dog be confined during your child’s visit since you can’t control the supervision that will be given, unless you are very, very comfortable with the home and dog.
  • Teach your children how to recognize the difference between a happy dog (relaxed and loose) and one who is uncomfortable (stiff and tense).
  • Teach children to never approach a strange dog, and to always ask the handler if the dog is friendly and can be petted.

Giving Treats Safely…

Kids always love to give a treat to a dog….it’s just a really big deal to a kid. However, if a dog uses teeth at all on the child’s skin, the child will often say, “The dog bit me!”  As a dog trainer, I can tell you that some dogs are overly excited in taking treats, so that they really can hurt when those teeth hit your skin!  Trust me….I KNOW!!  Here’s how to avoid that unpleasant situation altogether!

I always tell children that my dog, Rugby, eats food out of a bowl, so we need to offer treats to him in a bowl.  I ask them to make a bowl with their hands, by cupping them.  Be sure to show them what you mean.  Then, I place a treat in the child’s “bowl,”  and help them put their hand just under the dog’s mouth so that he can easily eat the treat out of their “bowl.”

Typically, the dog will use his tongue to pick up the treat rather than his teeth, and then he will lick the bowl clean!  The child will feel his dog’s soft, wet tongue, and it will sort of tickle their hand.  No teeth are involved, and it’s a much safer way to give dogs a treat, and it will feel a bit like a game to the child.

A Great Video to Watch With Your Kids….

In closing, here is one of my favorite videos to help parents and kids understand what things dogs tell us with their body language!  Let’s reduce those dog bite statistics drastically this year!!

 

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Preventing Resource Guarding

Resource guarding is a very common type of  aggressive behavior that often results in a bite!  Not all dogs care to guard possessions, but some dogs turn into Gollum from “The Hobbit,” and that possession becomes “My Precious!”

dog-bones-350093_1280“Resources” are items that have value to a dog….food, water, toys, bones, people…etc.  The dog doesn’t want to lose them for fear that he will go hungry, thirsty, have nothing to play with, or no one to keep them safe.  As a result, they resort to growling, snapping and even biting to protect what they believe is rightfully theirs.

This behavior can get started by well meaning owners who take their puppy’s food bowl or toys away to show them who is the boss.  This can actually make the behavior worse, rather than making it better!  In my opinion, your dog should never, ever have to fear that you will take his food or toys away from him!

So what’s an owner to do?

For Dogs Who Don’t Already Guard Resources….

You can easily help teach your dog not to guard food and toys in a very stress free manner!  While your dog is eating, drop little tidbits of high value food into his bowl.  You can use little shreds of fresh chicken, beef or even cheese.  Don’t touch his bowl or him initially, but let him learn that when you approach him while he’s eating, it’s always because you want to give him something and that it’s always something really tasty!  Over time, you can add in quickly running your hand down your dog’s back  after you leave his extra tidbit for him and then leave him alone!  Do not wallow all over your dog while he’s eating!  That’s completely unfair to him!  I think all creatures, human or animals, simply want to eat in peace.  In my opinion, that’s just called respect, and I think your dog will appreciate your allowing him that boundary.

dog-185882_1920When you need to take something from a dog….contraband, a chew bone or toy, etc., trade your dog for something that you know has equal or higher value.  This might be another toy that your dog likes better, or a treat in many cases.  In order for the dog to take the new item that you are offering,  he has to spit out what he has in his mouth first.  As you offer the replacement, ask your dog to “Drop It.”  After he spits out the first item, you can quickly pick it up or kick it away to safely pick up.  If he’s unwilling to trade you, chances are, he thinks what he has is better than what you’re offering to him.  You’ll need to be sure you’re offering something of equal or higher value in your dog’s opinion.

Grabbing things from your dog is just rude, and that’s why they often want to snap, growl or bite!  None of us want a dog who will guard his possessions!  However, so many people make things waaaaay worse by “trying” to make it better!!   By trading your dog something else that he wants, he won’t even miss the first thing he’s giving up….provided that the replacement that you are offering is equal or higher value than what he has.  Most dogs will do an easy trade, and it’s seamless and non-confrontational!

Think About What Sorts of Chew Toys You Give Your Dogs….

At my house, it’s man-made toys only.  Many dogs will get ugly over rawhides, pig ears, chew hooves, antlers, bully sticks, etc.  The common denominator is that all of those items were once part of a living, breathing, animal, and some dogs treat those items as if they are his “kill.” Wild animals who are carnivores often chew the bones of the animals they consume, and even our domesticated dogs have an innate desire to chew bones.  However, to some dogs, I think that as they chew whatever that natural chew is, they dream of how they killed that animal and that hidden “beast” comes out in them.  Sadly, children are often the targets of a dog’s aggression where resource guarding is concerned, so this is very very dangerous behavior!!  It’s also an area of frequent dog-on-dog aggression with multiple dogs in a household.  I always recommend only man-made toys for my clients.  I rarely encounter aggressive resource guarding issues with those types of items.

Teach Your Dog the Command Leave It…

“Leave It” is one of the most useful commands you can teach your dog!  It has such universal applications, and I find myself using it daily with Rugby!  It generally means leave something alone…and that something can be a jogger or another dog on a walk, a squirrel in the back yard, or food which might have been dropped in the kitchen.

When I teach this command, I start with the dog on a loose leash.  I have a handful of kibble or treats.  I make sure I’m working on a floor surface that has a rug available for my dog to comfortably sit or down when he signals to me.

008 (3)I gently drop a bite of food behind me and slightly off to the side as I say, “Drop It!”  Naturally, your dog will try to quickly pounce on that bite of food.  Without saying a word, I simply block the dog’s ability to get to the food by stepping in front of him.  He will continue to try various things to get to the food, which is fine.  He’s problem solving.  Stay quiet and let him work.  As much as you can, keep your leash loose.

At some point, he’s going to give up.  When he’s signalling that he gives up, he will sit or lay down, (either one is acceptable) and he will also look up at you.  He must sit or down, and also look at you.  Most dogs sit first, and then look up.  At the moment that he does both of those things, you’ll mark his behavior by saying, “Yesssss!” in a happy, excited voice!  You’ll give him a bite of food from your hand, plus the original bite of food that you dropped on the floor.  Be sure he stays sitting, or wait for him to sit in order to get the food from your hand.

Don’t allow him to grab the bite off the floor himself.  He needs to get that bite from your hand only.  Remember that most of the time when you’re telling your dog to “Leave It,” he’s honestly not going to be allowed to have whatever it is that he wants.  So be sure you let him know that any time he hears “Leave It” the only way he can actually have the item is when you hand it to him.

Over time what you’ll likely see, is that your dog will stop trying to get the food, remain sitting or laying down, and simply watch you drop it and then look up at you.  If he doesn’t go after the food, I stay put.  I don’t block the food unless the dog tries to get it.  After a few repetitions, the dog will figure out the rules of your game!  You’re teaching him that giving up quickly, easily, and asking you, “Now what?”  will earn him a better reward than by following his doggie impulse to grab that bite no matter what!  Impulse control is a very important skill to teach your dog, and this is a fun game and great way to do it!

Keep in mind that dogs don’t generalize quickly, so it will take him a long time to understand that “Leave It”  with a bite of food on the floor is going to be very different than “Leave It” when he’d rather chase that squirrel that he sees on a walk with you!  Just teach it the way I’ve described, and start using the phrase, “Leave it” in everyday language with your dog.  Over time, he will sort things out, and it will make sense to him.

 My Dog is Already a Resource Guarder!  What Do I Do?

dog-1389721_1920I have a short and sweet suggestion:  Hire professional help in trying to work through the issue!  Once your dog is already aggressive, I don’t recommend doing ANY of the things I’ve suggested in order to prevent the problem behavior…UNLESS you are directed to do so by a professional dog trainer!  When a dog is guarding something, trying to offer a trade may very well result in a dog bite!

Aggressive behavior modification should always be directed by a seasoned, experienced professional!  When I work through these issues with dogs, I have a protocol to follow, and getting things out of order can make things worse and not better, so please seek professional help with ANY active aggression from your dog!

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Learn to Recognize Stress Signals From Your Dog

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Dog on right is using a calming signal

Evaluations can really be interesting events for me as a dog trainer.  In a nutshell, some folks get it, and some folks don’t.

What in the world do I mean by that?

When I evaluate a dog, as I talk with dog owners, I discover that some owners really do understand how their dog communicates, and some owners totally misread their dogs, and those situations can really be problematic or even dangerous!  Some owners can tell that their dog is aggressive, and others call that same behavior “excitement.”  Here’s something important to note:  When a dog is in an over-excited, over-stimulated state, they can either be happy with that excitement, or….they can become a  little bit or a lot….aggressive!

A Dog’s Primary Language…

A dog’s primary language is body language and facial expression.  Barking is a language, but not the primary way that a dog communicates. And dogs speak all the time.  I’m fascinated just watching Rugby outside.  His ears are always in motion….picking up sounds, wind, etc.  They change from being perked up high on his head, to relaxed, which is lower on his head, to frightened, like bunny ears….pinned back tightly against his head, etc.  And those ears are simply one body part!  But….ears are a very important body part in learning to read your dog’s communication!

When I ask young kids how their dogs talk to them, they always….without exception….tell me that he barks.  They’re not entirely wrong, of course, because barking is a language that a dog uses to communicate.  But it’s only “a” language, and it’s certainly not their primary language.

Dogs speak primarily through their bodies and their facial expressions.  And they are talking all the time.  Constantly.  The problem is that many owners don’t understand what they are seeing, and they ignore critical communication from their dogs, until it’s too late.  Owners often miss stress signals and subsequent calming signals which their dogs are sending to them.  These signals can be obvious, like a yawn, or subtle like a tongue flick.  Being able to understand how your dog expresses his stress or anxiety….even in a subtle way can really be helpful in diffusing situations which could lead to a dog bite.

When dogs feel themselves getting anxious, they will try to calm themselves by doing various signals or behaviors, to help themselves.  It’s important to learn these, because on occasion, when a dog exhibits a calming signal, an owner can misunderstand what their dog is saying and respond in an inappropriate way, which will leave their dog feeling confused.

Some Common Calming Signals….

  • Yawning
  • Licking lips or tongue flick
  • Turning away or looking away
  • Play bow…more like a stretch than invitation to play
  • Sniffing the ground when it seems out of place in the moment
  • Walking slowly
  • Sitting down (especially with his back to you)
  • Paw lift
  • Walking toward you in a curve or arc
  • Smiling or smacking his lips
  • Scratching when it seems out of place
  • Urinating on himself
  • Pinning his ears flat against his head (sometimes called “bunny ears”)
  • Laying flat against the ground
  • Shake offs (often as if he’s trying to shake off water)
  • Blinking
  • Licking your face or mouth

Do Dogs Bite Without Warning?

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Often I hear owners tell me that their dogs bit without any warning.  They are often very surprised, because they didn’t see the aggressive signs that had been brewing for weeks and months with their dog. I hear it almost every time I evaluate an aggressive dog.  Let me tell you that dogs rarely just wake up one day and decide to bite.

More often than not, a dog begins communicating his stress and anxiety with his body and his facial expressions.  Often, his owners ignore what he is saying because they don’t think it’s very important, or they just don’t know what they are seeing.  When dogs get repeatedly ignored, and nothing changes….their behavior often progresses into uglier and uglier behavior…until they finally bite, because they feel as if they’ve been left to solve their own problems.  But the actual aggressive behavior usually started months or years earlier, in most cases, and they were ignored.

It’s so very important to know what you are seeing from your dog!!  Dogs are honest in their communication.  They say what they feel, and it’s really important that we know how to recognize what they are communicating to be able to help them.  When they communicate that they are uncomfortable, it’s NOT the time to punish them, but to calm them and remove the source of the stress!  I see this when I train dogs every day.  When I start seeing any stress signals, I back off and bring the dog to a place of comfort, confidence and relaxation before I try again….and I slow things down so the dog won’t feel so stressed about what I’m teaching him.  Owners who don’t understand this scold their dogs and accuse them of being obstinate, willful, stupid, etc.  This is the value of working with a qualified, experienced professional dog trainer!  I take time to explain to owners on a daily basis what their dogs are saying, so that they can learn to “speak dog,” and help their dog when it matters most.

Imagine being your dog, and talking and talking but your humans don’t understand and don’t listen.

Imagine being put in uncomfortable positions over and over and no one helps you, because they aren’t paying attention and don’t know what’s going on with you, even though you’re telling them repeatedly how you feel.

Imagine how helpless you would feel…how scared….how anxious….how worried.

Remember that when you brought your dog home….

  • You promised to care for him….
  • You promised to love him…
  • You chose him….he didn’t get to vote on what home he got.

Be there for him.

Give him the best home and best life he can have.

Take the time….make the time…to learn how your dog communicates.

Your dog is worth it!

For more information about this subject, please refer to an earlier blog post I wrote which is called: “Book Review:  On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals.”

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