Tag Archives: dog bites

Speaking “Doglish” part three

Dogs are pretty complex creatures. So much for so-called scientists who even in the mid-twentieth century still believed dogs were nothing but biological “machines” and incapable of thought or feeling — let alone communication. Of course, these “scientists” had no proof, had not performed measurable, repeatable experiments. But that’s a whole other topic and I wanted to continue about dog body language.

Focusing on a dog’s tail to judge her mood — and ignoring the rest of her body — will just not tell us what she’s likely to do. Few people would trust the grin of that back-stabbing office co-worker to mean she wishes us well. So, why do we think a dog’s tail-wag is so much simpler to understand? Seems like we have something in common with those scientists — expecting that dogs, being “lower” animals are going to be less complicated that the human animal.

Dogs communicate with their entire bodies: all body parts, plus posture and where the dog sits, stands or lays! Stanley Coren tells of an owner who consulted him because his terrier was biting people “out of the blue” — being very friendly one second and attacking the next. Upon questioning, Dr. Coren discovered that the terrier would have a toy or bone and when approached would stand over it head up and tail up wagging furiously. The owner and others, seeing the wagging tail would assume the dog was happy. But the dog’s body (head up and tail up) and where it was standing (OVER the toy) told a totally different story.

Standing over the toy, indicated the dog was claiming it. Head and tail up meant he was very confident in his abililty to “defend” his prize. His fast-wagging tail meant he felt very strongly about this, and wanted everybody to know it. Another dog would have seen those signals and realized that she had two choices: 1) back off, or 2) be prepared to fight for the toy. But the people misunderstood, and kept coming closer, probably trying to pet the dog on the head/back (a challenge for authority) and the poor terrier had no recourse but to give a warning snap. The people felt betrayed — but so did the dog!

In fact, the dog was probably giving other subtle signals to back off. With most dogs, a bite is the LAST warning in a long series. As with the terrier, dogs warn with their posture and by claiming an object or spot by standing over/in front of it. Then, they give a warning LOOK which is a head snapping around to face the interloper with a hard stare (remember dogs consider eye contact a challenge.) If that is ignored, the upper lip wrinkles. If THAT is ignored, the upper lip pulls back to reveal the teeth. At this point, or shortly after, the dog growls, and it’s body is becoming stiff. If all these signals are not enough, the next step is a warning snap, not meant to connect, and only after all that will a dog actually bite. There is usually a moment of total non-activity — a “freeze” — where the dog’s mouth shuts and her entire body becomes absolutely still before a bite. When you see a dog becoming very still — back off and give it some space.

These steps take a long time to describe, and a dog can run through all the steps very quickly, almost too fast for humans to perceive. And some dogs’ signals are much more subtle than others’. I’m sure that a slow-motion replaying of the Rottie who bit the animal control officer (see Speaking “Doglish” part one) would reveal all of these steps, but they were very restrained and sped up. (Note: Rotties tend to be much more subtle and so harder to read than many other dogs.)

And yet another misunderstood signao: a GROWL, is a GOOD thing! The dog is trying to communicate her unease, unhappiness, or dissatisfaction. It ISN’T “mean” or “vicious!” In fact, I recommend that we are very careful and DON’T punish our dogs for growlingl. If we do, the dog may learn to skip that vital step in the escalation of warning — and go straight to the bite. Instead, I think we need to listen (as well as look for) what the dog is trying to tell us.

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Speaking “Doglish” part two.

We humans have a talent for labeling. We like a firm “handle” or definitive “niche” for everything. This creates a tendency to want and even expect all life experiences — like our dog’s behavior — to come in simple packages.  From children, we’re taught that if a dog wags its tail, she’s happy and friendly.  If the dog growls, she’s mean and vicious.  Documented research of the past 30 years plus has indicated that this just isn’t always so, but we still continue to believe it.  I think it’s the same psychological quirk that makes us perceive the behavior of other people as fixed and immutable whereas we see our own as reactions depending on the circumstances.  With dogs, not only the circumstances might change what that wagging tail means, but what the rest of their body is doing certainly does!

Tail wagging is definitely communication. It is documented that dogs don’t wag tail if no one is around.  They don’t wag as reaction to an object.  They wag for another person; four- or two-legged!  But it’s not all about the tail!  Dogs pay attention to each other’s ears, upper lip, lower jaw, corners of the mouth, head, neck, back, legs and feet, too.  Each of these body parts can “modify” what the tail is saying.  What the TAIL is doing besides wagging can modify the message.  HOW the tail is wagging modifies the message!

Most experts agree that wagging indicates the dog feels strongly about something.  Not necessarily strongly in favor of it.  The harder and faster the tail wags, the stronger the dog feels.  We get a clue to WHAT the dog is feeling by looking at WHERE the tail is wagging.  The higher the tail is held, the more confident the dog is feeling.  Most of us recognize that a dog with tail between her legs is scared.  When a dog holds her tail  up above the level of her back or curled over it, she’s feeling confident, if not belligerent.  Unfortunately, this is complicated by the fact that different dog breeds naturally hold their tails in different places.  For example, a Greyhound in a neutral position, holds her tail down, slightly curving between her legs.  At the opposite side of the spectrum a Siberian Husky’s tail often naturally curls up over her back even at rest.  And some dogs’ tails (like most terriers) can stick straight up from the base like an inverted carrot, whereas other breeds’ tails  have stiffer bases, so — especially if the tail is docked — we can’t see the tail rising above the level of the back.  So, we need to know where our dog naturally carries her tail, and realize that “up” and “down” are relative to that position!

We get other clues by HOW the tail is wagging.  Is is stiffly moving back and forth from the base like a metronome?  That indicates dominance/possible aggression, and we’d better look at other body parts for more clues. Is is low and moving only a little bit, mostly the tip, rather tentatively?  That is an unsure dog, a bit concerned and perhaps wanting to placate you.    Is it “swishy” with vertebrae so loose that the tail tip touches the dog’s sides at each wag?  That’s a lot more relaxed and good-natured.  Is the tail in spasms of movement — almost in a “propeller” action  — taking the hindquarters with it? That, most experts agree, is the only wagging one can really trust as being 100% friendly and happy!

Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to look for other body clues that modify the wagging-tail message!


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Speaking “Doglish” part one

I think it was one of my favorite dog experts, Stanley Coren, who coined the term “Doglish” for the language of our domestic canines.  This “language” isn’t really very similar to ours at all.  Dogs do make lots of noises (barks, whines, growls, etc.) that have meaning for them.   However, those noises don’t correspond to words and seem to be used to reinforce body language.   This is just about opposite of how people communicate: we look to body language to reinforce the spoken.  To make things more complicated, dogs interpret body language differently than people do.

For example, look at a simple greeting between humans.  We consider it’s polite to stand facing the other person, smiling, leaning forward, making eye contact and holding out a hand.  A dog interprets a head-on posture and direct stare as a challenge.  Showing teeth with the mouth closed is a warning to back off.   Leaning forward and pawing are also questionable — could be an attack.  Dogs don’t greet each other that way at all!  A polite dog greeting avoids eye contact, mouth closed or open with a relaxed upper lip, making a kind of swerve around the other dog’s head in a comma shape, heading to sniff the other dog’s rear end — and they keep their paws to themselves.

There are further complications when a human greets a dog.  With very few exceptions, humans stand taller than dogs.  When we bend over the dog and try to pat it on the head the dog’s instincts interpret that as an attempt to dominate!  In the dog world, vertical height is not merely symbolic, but as Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell writes “Dogs interpret an increase in vertical height as an increase in status.  Period.”  In other words,  before passing “go” the dog thinks you’re challenging for status! So many times, dog owners tell me that they think their dog was abused early in life because they duck away from a greeting.  After questioning, it turns out that this greeting is usually being hovered over with the human trying to pet the dog on top of the head.  The dog is simply uncomfortable, but too polite to give a warning to back off, so s/he tries to move away.

This misunderstanding is also the cause of dog bites.  I watched an episode of some dog rescue program on Animal Planet where a Rottweiler bit the animal control officer who was petting him soon after rescuing him from a bad situation.  The officer took the blame on himself and the dog was given some re-training.  The program of course, got the officer and dog together again as a follow-up, and the officer stood talking to the interviewer HEAVILY PETTING THE DOG ON THE HEAD!  I watched horrified, knowing what was coming and sure enough, the dog bit him again.  Mind you, the dog had put up with about 30 seconds of what was to him extremely challenging and uncomfortable behavior — while being held in place for the camera.  The Rottie couldn’t escape and was giving signals that he was uncomfortable: wrinkled lip, tensing up, closing his mouth, etc.  But no one was “listening!”

It seems to me that the burden of “understanding” should fall on us humans with our big brains and superior thinking abilities.

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