It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, but after seeing a picture today of a child dressed like a jockey and sitting on the back of a Great Dane like it was a horse, I can’t help but feel like I haven’t done enough of them. We humans constantly place our dogs in situations that put them, and kids, at risk. How do we educate millions of dog owners on dog body language? How do we help them to see beyond the cuteness to see what a dog is really telling them?
No dog is fool-proof. Ever. Some dogs are more tolerant than others, but pushed far enough a dog will bite, especially if he cannot flee from the situation. If we can learn to recognize when a dog is uncomfortable, we can intervene and stop whatever is making them uncomfortable or we can remove them from the situation and place them somewhere they feel safe. Dogs and kids are at OUR mercy. It is up to us to protect them both.
Below is a video I’ve had in my video file for some time. Overall, it is not a terrible video. It doesn’t have a child standing or jumping on a dog. It doesn’t have a dog snarking at or biting a child. But, it is a good example of the subtle behaviors a dog displays when uncomfortable, and in this video, the cues are really easy to see.
Watch the video below and then see my observations and analysis.
What I see…
A baby and a dog are laying on a bed. The child is on her stomach and she is lying next to the family dog, who is looking out the window. The baby is propped up on her hands and is looking in the opposite direction. The dad is the one videotaping what looks to be a very cute moment.
.04 sec: Dog looks at camera and does a lip lick. Baby is looking down and away from the dog.
.05 sec: Dog does another small lip lick and looks at the child.
.06 sec: Baby looks at dog
.07 sec: Dog looks at baby and does a small lip lick. His ears are way back on his head. It appears he has a whale-eye, but hard to tell since he has turned to face the baby and we are only seeing him from the side.
.08 sec: Dog does another very small lip lick and ears are back. Child raises the hand nearest the dog.
.09-.10 sec: Child raises are and swings it towards the dog a couple of times. Blink.
.11 sec: Dog does another lip lick. Ears appear even further back on his head. Blink. Blink.
.12 sec: two more quick lip licks from the dog. Looks at camera. Ears are spread far apart on his head and are back.
.13 sec: Baby leans forward. Another lip lick from the dog. Slight whale-eye.
.14-.16 sec: Baby leans towards dog. Lip-lick. Dog pulls lips back (no teeth shown) and looks at child.
.16 sec: Child touches dog’s mouth. Dog does another lip-lick. Whale-eye.
.17 sec: Dog leans sideways towards child and does another lip lick.
.20 sec: Child raises hand. Dog pulls head away slightly and turns it. Looks slightly away from child.
.21 sec: Dog looks at child. Blink.
.23-.24 sec: Dog and child look at man behind the camera. Dogs ears are back.
.25 sec: Child rocks up and forward on hands.
.26 sec: Dog looks up at ceiling in opposite direction of the child. (Distraction?)
.26 sec: Dog looks to side. Eyes focused. Mouth slightly open.
.30 sec: Child rocks forward. Dog looks at child. Lip-lick.
.31 sec: Lip-lick. Looks at camera. Blink.
.33 sec: Dog yawns. Baby yawns. both look towards camera.
.36-.37 sec: Baby lifts arm and drops it on bed near dog. Lip-lick from the dog. Blink.
.38 sec: Lip lick. Blink
.43 sec: Lip-lick.
.44 sec: Lip-lick. Baby looks at dog. Blink.
.48-.49 sec: Baby lifts arm that is further away from the dog and places it on dog’s paw. Dog immediately turns and licks child’s hand.
.50 sec: Licks child’s hand again.
.51 sec: Dog licks child’s hand again and moves face closer to baby’s face. Lip-lick. Displays whale-eye.
.52 sec: Licks baby’s face.
.53 sec: Licks baby’s face again and then her ear as she turns away.
.54 sec: Licks baby’s ear twice more.
.54-.55 sec: Two more lick-licks. Baby and dog look at camera.
.57 sec: Dog glances away from baby and then back at camera.
1:00 min: Baby rocks forward and towards dog. Dog does another lip-lick. Ears are back on his head.
1:01 min: Lip-lick. Whale-eye. Dog leans over and licks child’s face.
1:02 min: Licks child’s face again.
1:02-1:03 min: Two more quick lip-licks from the dog. Looks at camera. Child is now leaning forward and almost looming over dog.
1:03-1:04 min: Two more quick lip-licks. Dog closes eyes on second lip lick (exaggerated blink?).
1:05 min: Blink and lip-lick from the dog.
1:06 min: Child leans over and hand touches paw again. Dog immediately leans forward and licks child’s hand.
1:07 min: Licks child’s hand again and places at the camera.
1:08 min: Two more lip licks.
1:09 min: Lip-lick. Dog raises head. Mouth is slightly open. Dog is looking at the camera.
1:11 min: Child touches dog’s paw again and he licks her hand again.
1:12 min: Licks child’s hand twice more and looks at camera.
1:13 min: Lip-lick.
1:15 min: Lip-lick.
1:16 min: Dog blinks.
1:18-1:19 min: Child lifts arm and touches side of dog’s face. Dog gives a lip-lick and closes eyes.
1:20 min: Dog flicks ear and lip-licks.
1:21 min: Dog blinks.
1:22 min: Child raises hand towards dog’s ear. Dog closes eyes.
1:23 min: Child touches dog’s ear. Dog blinks and then does another lip-lick.
1:24-1:25 min: Child grabs on dog’s ear and pulls, Dog lip-licks. Mouth is closed. Blink.
1:26 min: Child pulls his ear. Dog looks at child. Whale-eye. Looks at child. Lip-lick.
1:27 min: Two more lip-licks from the dog. Moves face closer to child.
1:28 min: Lip-lick. Blinks. Pulls body away from child. Looks at camera.
1:29 min: Lip licks again and pulls further away from child. Mouth tightly closes.
1:30 min: Small lip-lick. Dog seems stiff. Lips are drawn. Child is touching dog with hand.
1:31 min: Child touches dog again. Dog appears stiff. hale-eye. Dog looks at camera.
1:32 min: Lip-lick.
1:33 min: Lip lick. Child touches dog’s paw. Dog freezes. Dog leans head away from child and pulls paw away from child’s hand.
1:34-1:35 min: Dog lays head on bed. Paw is in the air. Dog rests paw on bed.
1:36-1:37 min: Owner tells dog he is a good boy and dog lays back further and closes eyes.
1:38-1:39 min: Child touches paw with a finger and the dog sits back up quickly.
1:40 min: Whale-eye.
1:41 min: Lip-lick. Dog looks at baby.
1:42 min: Two more lip-licks. Licks child’s face.
1:42-1:47 min: Dog licks child’s face and ear multiple times.
1:48 min: Owner moves hands toward dog and tells him “That’s enough Spencer” while chuckling. Dog gives another lip-lick.
1:49 min: Lip-lick.
1:50 min: Lip-lick.
1:51 min: Lip-lick.
1:51-1:53 min: Dog lifts himself up with front paws and stands up on bed and makes move to jump off.
My analysis: Spencer the dog displayed numerous appeasement and stress signals throughout the video. I don’t think I have ever seen so many lip-licks in such a short period of time. The number of lip-licks and blinks in just a mere second of time was amazing too. All of these (lip-licks, blinking and yawning) are appeasement signals. They are telling the child (and the owner) that he is uncomfortable and would like the behavior (touching him, leaning over him and grabbing him) to stop. He is especially not comfortable with the baby touching his feet. I think these moments were some of the scariest moments to watch. I literally held my breath because I thought the potential for the dog to bite was there (examples can be seen at .16 sec, .17 sec, 1:01 min, 1:31 min and 1:40 min).
Spencer the dog was exceptionally tolerant. Thank goodness. The number of times the baby’s face was near Spencer’s were way too frequent. If Spencer had bitten, he could have done some serious damage. What amazed me is how many signals Spencer gave in just one second of time. In one second, he could have bitten the baby and the father would have been unable to do anything to prevent it. Just one second is all it takes.
So what did you see? What did I miss?
Want to learn more about dog stress and appeasement signals? Victoria Stillwell has a great piece on it on her Canine Body Language page.
Spend any time at all at a dog park or dog-centric event and you will find yourself starting to form opinions about dogs (and their owners). How a dog behaves may be a reflection of the owner, but often we assume a dog’s behavior is based on their breed.
For example, we might say the following:
- Labrador Retrievers are great family dogs and love kids.
- Golden Retrievers are friendly with everyone.
- Terriers like to dig.
- Hunting dogs, like German Shorthair Pointers and Vizslas, love to go hunting.
But, are these assumptions correct?
Science Friday, often heard on National Public Friday (NPR), explored this very topic this past February. Animal behaviorist James Serpell, was their guest. He discussed our common assumptions on dog breeds and how much of our dog’s behavior is dependent on us, their owners.
He also discussed C-BARQ, a Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire, designed to provide dog owners and professionals with standardized evaluations of canine temperament and behavior.
Take a listen. I think you will learn that breed is only part of the equation.
You can listen to the podcast here:
This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend a two-day workshop on dog interactions, dog behavior, aggression and behavior management. One session focused on behaviors often seen at dog parks and doggy daycares. It was eye-opening, mind-expanding and thought-provoking.
One of the key learnings I took away from the seminar had to do with what we often like to think of as “playing” at the dog park. (Hint: Most of what we see at the dog park is not playing.)
When we think of dogs playing, what do we often see them doing? Chasing? Wrestling? Playing tug? Probably all of those right? But what are we missing?
If you’ve watched any of Sue Sternberg‘s dog park videos, probably a lot. Dogs are always communicating with one another, whether it be before, during or after their interactions with one another. What we consider “play” at the dog park is often not play, but something else, something frightening and dangerous – dog-on-dog aggression.
Sue calls out five “Red Alert” behaviors that we dog owners should be watching for when we take our dogs to the dog park. We should be intervening immediately when we see them. These behaviors include:
- Risky chasing behaviors almost always include out of control and high arousal chasing that may include one of more of the following: group chase, hard physical contact, pinning, high tail carriage, neck or throat fixation and the chasee hiding, or trying to get away.
- Mobbing is a group of individual dogs approaching, harassing, controlling or attacking a single dog. This can be with or without bloodshed.
- Targeting is one dog following or pursuing another dog relentlessly, exclusively, obsessively. It’s relentless engagement that may or may not include many of the behaviors displayed in Risky Chasing.
- Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior through the use of physical overpowering, hard contact, body slamming, hip-checking, shoulder-checking, relentless engagement, chase or ganging up to affect an individual dog.
- Hunting is when a dog moves around the dog park going from dog to dog, looking for something to jab, chase, poke, pounce on, roll. This is not looking for a playmate, but forcing himself on other dogs.
I have seen many of these behaviors at my own dog park and have intervened as often as possible, but it takes everyone in the dog park watching for them to ensure dogs stay safe. And, if you are the owner of a dog who is hiding, has a tucked tail, is cowering or running away or the recipient of any of the five Red Alert behaviors, remove him from the park immediately. Not only is he not having fun, but he could be injured.
Worried you won’t remember any of these behaviors? Or, worried your own dog is practicing these “bad” behaviors in your dog park? I highly recommend you get Sue’s Dog Park Assistant app for your phone. It only costs 99 cents, but it will pay for itself in the long run.
The app provides you with not only descriptions of Red Alert behaviors, but also videos showing what each looks like. It also shows you other common dog behaviors at lower threat levels. You can input your own dog’s profile and set it to remind you to intervene while you are at the dog park or review some dog park tips, best practices and find external resources to help you.
I know many of you will say “This is why I never go to the dog park.”, but as Sue said in the seminar, they exist for a reason and they are here to stay. With more of us living in cities where green space is difficult to find, and where more and more homes are becoming two-dog households, dog parks serve a purpose. Dogs need to run and in some cities, dog parks are the only place available for them to do that. But, if they are to be safe, we all need to take a part in keeping it that way.
Here’s an example of Bullying, one of the five Red Alert behaviors.
On Wednesday night, I took the dogs to the dog park (like I usually do). Jasper spent his time chasing after sticks, Daisy explored the woods and Cupcake sniffed to her heart’s desire. We even walked with some friends (Tom and his dogs Ruby and Max), and said hello to a few other friends we know. It was fun evening
It was towards the end of our walk that we first heard them. Children. Little ones. We could also hear their dog barking, and the owner calling it over and over again, with absolutely no success. Trouble was coming. I could just feel it. I called Daisy, Jasper and Cupcake to me and we headed out of the woods and across the field to the far end of the park.
I admit I am always little wary of anyone bringing kids to the park. You just never know what can happen. I watched from across the field as the little children exited the woods with two women. They all turned and walked along the edge of the field – away from us. I breathed a sigh of relief and led my dogs in the opposite direction.
As we walked, I noticed that the older child, about 5 years old, was carrying an arm load of sticks. The other child a toddler about 2-3 years old, followed closely behind him and then stopped to pick up a stick of his own.
The older boy followed his mom and the other woman down the mulched path, away from the toddler. I kept watching as he and the two women kept moving away from the toddler, widening the distance between them. They got a good distance away from him before they even turned to see where he was. They seemed unconcerned that they were so far away from him.
It was then I saw the dog approach. He went right up to the child’s hand and face and grabbed the stick right from his hand. (Luckily, the toddler did not try to take it back.) The dog stayed there, looking at the child, no more than a couple of feet away from him and his face, not moving closer, but also not moving away. It was not until his owner called him back to her, that he finally left the child. Thankfully, he had a great recall.
The whole time this was going on, the mother and other woman just stood there, almost half the length of the dog park away from the toddler. They did not yell, or call his name, or even start to run back to him. They just sent the older son back to retrieve him. I don’t even think they realized how dangerous a position her child had been in. I don’t think she realized how quickly this incident could have turned into a tragedy.
She was damn lucky. How foolish that mother was to bring her small child to a dog park, filled with dogs she did not know, and then leave him in such a terribly vulnerable position. A dog bite could have happened so easily. Another dog could have caused some serious damage to her child. That this dog, or another dog, did not do so is a miracle. That mother was so very lucky that the dog her toddler encountered was well-trained and had a good recall. She was lucky her child encountered a “good” dog. But, let’s face it, even a “good” dog can bite.
We humans have to get better at preventing dog bites. We need to take interactions between dogs and kids more seriously. We need to be more purposeful about where, when and HOW we expose dogs and kids to one another. And, I’m not just talking about stranger’s dogs either. More children are bitten by the family pet than by a dog they do not know.
So how do we get better at keeping both dogs and kids safe?
- Teach kids that they have to ask permission before approaching a strange dog. ALWAYS.
- Educate kids on how to tell when a dog is safe to approach and then how to do so safely. Make it a game. Quiz them in the car and in the park. (Stop the 77 has a great video for pre-schoolers called “I Speak Doggie.”)
- Supervise, whenever a dog and child are together (NO multi-tasking or playing on your cell phone). We need to be completely present and watching their interactions. We also need to be watching for signals that the dog is done with the interaction. (4Paws University shared a great graphic and information today on their Facebook page.) If you see a dog LOOK AWAY, TURN AWAY or MOVE AWAY, the dog has had enough and you need to either remove the dog or the child from the interaction.
- Stop punishing dogs for growling. This is your warning sign that your dog has had enough. When you punish a dog for growling, you are taking away the alarm bell that tells you a bite could happen. (4Paws University shared a great graphic on this one too.)
- Teach our kids how to act when a strange dog approaches them that is scary. (Doggone Safe shows children how to Be Like A Tree in order to avoid a dog bite.)
- Stop pretending that your dog is different from other dogs and that they like having a child climbing on them. They really don’t. Do you like it when a child pulls your hair, yanks on your ear, steps on your gut, kicks your leg or bites you? No? If we don’t like it, then why do we expect dogs to like it any better? It’s not cute. It’s rude (and dangerous).
When a dog bites a child, everyone pays a price.
You lose a dog and a best friend.
Your child loses a friend and his love and trust of dogs.
The dog loses its life.
The kind of behavior displayed in the video below (And if that doesn’t scare you enough, maybe this one will.) has lose-lose results for everyone. Let’s make it stop.
Stop pretending dogs don’t bite.
If you have a dog, then you know they are creatures of habit, and letting you know it is dinnertime is one habit they have mastered well. My mother’s dog, Jake, knows when dinnertime is (when Wheel of Fortune comes on), but he will try like mad to get my mother to feed him early. She never does, but he keeps on trying.
In my house, Daisy is the time-keeper. She reminds us when it is time to eat and when it is time to play. She announces dinner time by prancing from her kennel to the living room to the kitchen and back to her kennel again, getting all the other dogs whipped up into a frenzy. This prancing continues until the food has been delivered to her kennel.
She also reminds us when it is time to play games or going for walks by wagging her tail and pacing back and forth in excitement. It continues until the message has been received.
As it turns out, that Daisy is the time-keeper and family instigator for a lot of the activities in our house. I never realized how much she really “managed” until she was gone for the few days following her surgery.
While she was gone:
- I had dogs looking for meals, but not with the intensity that I see when Daisy is here. She gets everyone whipped up with excitement.
- There was no push to have game night. Daisy always gets things started by pacing back and forth from her kennel and the living room while wagging her tail in excitement the whole time. She will stop, give me the look, and then start pacing again. Soon all the other dogs are getting excited too.
- The urgency to go outside often was a lot less intense. Daisy often leads that push as well.
- The demand for cheese after coming inside (something we started for Maggie) is forgotten or given up quickly.Daisy is not one to miss a cheese reward if one is expected.
- Maggie took over the whole end of the couch and slept without interruption (that is Daisy’s spot when she is home).
But Daisy is not the only instigator, Jasper does it too. He loves nothing better than to get Cupcake riled up so she will run to the fence to bark at the neighbor’s dog with him. And Cupcake loves to get everyone whipped up in the morning during their last potty break (before I leave for work). She runs around outside barking and prancing away and then comes inside the house and barks for me to get back inside so I can get their Kongs out of the freezer. Her excitement often gets Jasper circling the coffee table in excitement and has Maggie and Daisy running around too.
Each dog has an activity they “own” in our house, but by far Daisy appears to be the one who owns the most. And, she manages us well. If things are too boring, she is likely to whip things up. If there is food involved, she is all too willing to let me know she wants a piece of it and her siblings do as well. If add a new activity to our schedules (e.g., game night), she will remind me that we have not yet done that activity for the day. She is the instigator, house manager and coach.
Do you have a dog like Daisy? If so, what activities does he/she manage in your home and family?
Dog’s communicate with us, and other dogs, through their bodies. A raised tail, a furrowed brow, a tongue lick – all of these are signals of something the dog is feeling or trying to reflect back to us.
Have you ever heard someone say that a dog made an unprovoked attack on a child, an adult, or another dog? Would you believe me if I told you that in almost every single case the dog was already telling the human he was afraid or nervous or uncomfortable or threatened?
It’s true. In almost every case, a bite or attack could have been prevented if only the human had known what her dog was saying and removed him before trouble could begin.
Understanding dog body language not only helps you better understand your dog, but it also helps you to better meet his/her needs.
Yesterday, I shared a few pictures with you and asked you to make some observations of the dogs in the pictures, and what they were communicating, via their bodies. Today, I will share my own observations. I hope that you will keep me honest and call out anything I miss.
So here we go.
Picture 1: Lab and St. Bernard
Both dogs are approaching one another in an arc, something Nancy Freedman-Smith called out in her blog post Socialization Tips For Adult Dogs: A Tail Of Two Collies. This is a normal way for one dog to greet one another. Leashed dogs often cannot do this which is why problems can often pop up when two leashed dogs greet one another.
Lab (my dog, Daisy)
- Lowered head (lower than her shoulders)
- Body is leaning back, while her head is stretching forward
- Eyes are looking at the other dog
- Ears are way back and close to the head
- Mouth is closed and pulled back slightly
- Tail is down and may be tucked close to her body
The combination of the lowered head, with her body leaning away from the other dog, and ears being pulled back and resting close to her head, indicates that Daisy is nervous about the other dog. She is unsure of his intentions. By lowering her head as she approaches, Daisy is telling the other dog she means no harm. You’ll also notice that her mouth is closed and drawn tight and that her tail is down closer to her body, another sign that she is nervous or unsure.
- Head is also slightly lowered (lower than his shoulders)
- Body is leaning forward and slightly leaning away from the Lab
- Eyes are looking are facing the Lab, but unable to tell if the gaze is direct
- Although it is hard to tell, it appears the ears are slightly forward and slightly erect.
- Tail is up and curved slightly over his back
The combination of the St. Bernard’s curled tail, forward leaning body and ear position, indicate he is an extremely confident dog. He appears to be keenly focused on Daisy. The slight lean away from her is somewhat at odds with the rest of his body language, so I welcome anyone else’s thoughts on that one.
Picture 2: Sheltie
The Sheltie is this picture is my foster dog, Maggie. She is former puppy mill dog and still tentative with me (and others).
- Maggie’s ears sit far back on her head and pulled close. They are pricked and alert.
- Her head is tucked close to her neck
- Her mouth is tightly closed and lips drawn tight, but if you look closely, you can see her tongue has flicked out
- Her eyes are wide and round and dilated. Her eyebrows seem to be raised high on her head and there is a slight ridge just below her eye.
- Although it is hard to tell, her body appears to be leaning away from my finger.
The position of Maggie’s ears along with her wide eyes, raised eyebrows, and drawn lips are all signs that Maggie is stressed, nervous and afraid. She clearly is uncomfortable. Her tongue is likely out because she was displaying lip-licking, which is an appeasement signal in dogs (i.e., her way of telling me she means no harm). As my friend Nancy shared with me when saw this picture, Maggie is pressure sensitive. She wants the cheese I am offering, but she would probably feel more comfortable if I could offer it to her using a stick so she could take it from me at a distance that would feel much more comfortable to her. (If you are curious about pressure sensitive dogs, you can read You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure from the blog Eileen and Dogs.)
Picture 3: Husky
This is a Husky from our local dog park.
- Ears are pricked and forward
- Mouth is open, tongue is hanging out and you can see some of her teeth
- Body appears to be balanced on all four feet, but with a very slight lean forward on the front feet
- Tail is relaxed, but in a natural curl (for a Husky)
My guess is this dog is relaxed, but ready to play. The pricked and forward position of her ears indicate she is alert and watching what is going on across the field . The slightly forward lean could indicate that she is ready to jump into the mix, if the opportunity arises. The relaxed mouth indicates the dog is happy and relaxed.
Picture 4: Lab Mix and Shepherd Mix
The black Lab mix in the photo is Millie, a dog friend of ours from the dog park. Millie loves a good game of chase. She has never played with this dog before the day this picture was taken.
- Ears are back far on her head and pulled close (her ears are pulled back so far that the distance between them on her head is very small)
- Eyes are wide and round and show whites along the top (also known as “whale eye”)
- Her tongue is hanging out and the corners of her mouth are pulled back
- She the front paw is slightly raised
- Her body does not appear to be relaxed, but that may be because she is about to spring up from her prone position.
Millie’s ears, eyes and body seem to indicate that she is nervous and unsure. She is likely feeling anxious about the dog standing above her. The raised front paw may be just an indication of her trying to get up, but it also could be an appeasement signal to the dog standing above her.
- Head appears lowered, but the its position is even with her body (maybe even slightly raised above her shoulders)
- Eyes appear to be hard and focused and you can see the ridges of her eyebrows
- Ears are pricked and up high on her head
- Ridges are evident between her eyes and even between her ears
- Mouth is open and tongue is visible, you can see ridges just back and above her mouth
- Her body looks to be balanced (I cannot tell if she is leaning forward or back)
The wrinkles between the ears and the eyes on this dog are quite pronounced. These wrinkles, combined with the position of her ears, indicate she is annoyed. Her stare is also a form of intimidation and a warning that Millie should tread lightly.
- What is My Dog Trying to Tell Me? by Sue Alexander in Modern Dog Magazine
- Socialization Tips For Adult Dogs: A Tail Of Two Collies by Nancy Freedman-Smith of Petcha
- Dog Park Bullies: How to recognize bullying at the dog park and what to do if your dog is targeted by Steve Duno
These next five are all by Ann Bernrose of Woof Work Blog: