Has your dog ever snapped, growled, lunged, or bit someone, and did it seem like the behavior came out of nowhere? In many cases, dogs display early warning signals that precede a bite. These signals can be easy to miss. I recently conducted a study about people's interpretations of dog body language (article available in the journal PLoS ONE). The ability to identify happy behavior in dogs did not vary according to the level of dog experience that people had, but the ability to identify fear in dogs increased greatly with the level of dog experience. Why is this relevant to you? Well, communication is key to a successful dog-human relationship. When we misinterpret dog behavior, bites can occur. Therefore, it is important for dog owners (and non-owners) to understand what dogs are trying to say with their body language, so that problematic interactions can be stopped way before a bite occurs.
Many of us know that a low or tucked tail can indicate fear in dogs. What other behaviors tell us that a dog is feeling stressed or afraid? Yawning, panting, whining, looking away, stiffness in the body, and a closed mouth are all signs that a dog may be stressed and uncomfortable. Another common behavior is lip-licking, when a dog quickly flicks his tongue out and licks his lips. Dogs who are afraid may also flatten their ears against their heads. The dog shown in the photo is displaying multiple signs of stress: looking away, a tightly closed mouth, tension in the face, and ears held back. This doesn't mean that every time you see a dog displaying one of these behaviors that he is necessarily stressed or afraid. For example, dogs often pant when they are hot. The more you observe your own and others’ dogs, the more proficient you will become at identifying signs of stress and fear. When dogs display these behaviors, it is often not advisable to approach and pet them.
The attached videos depict and explain examples of dog body language. If you are a dog owner, a non-owner who interacts with dogs, or a parent whose kids interact with dogs, please view and share this information with others to help take a step towards bite prevention.
Have a dog training or behavior question? Post your questions to Dr. Wan below, or e-mail them to AskDrWan@westportdogs.com. Please read the guidelines before submitting your question.
Dr. Michele Wan, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, provides dog behavior consultations, including bite prevention education, to Fairfield County dog owners and phone consultations to dog owners nationwide. She earned her doctorate and researched dog-human communication at Columbia University.