Have you ever wondered why your dog cowers, runs from you, jumps, barks, growls, bites, snaps or an number of reactions, when you approach Fido? Or reach out to touch him/her?
A dog’s body language has everything to do with communication. You may be unknowingly sending daily signals to your dog causing these unwanted behaviors. Our body language, the sound of our voice, our facial expressions, and our thoughts, conscious and subconscious are continuously sending “messages” to the animals in our lives. Often confide in your dog, talking endlessly? He won’t understand a word. However, your expressions and movements of your body (ENERGY) speak volumes to him.
Have you ever watched multiple dogs interact? They have to communicate without the benefit of words. Instead, they have to convey their message through body language, growls, energy and even subliminal ‘messages’ such as a look in their eye. Have you ever given your child ‘the look’? And they know exactly what you want? It’s similar with dogs. They are looking for the action or reaction.
Sure, a dog can be taught that certain words mean certain things. And much of that, just like creating good or bad habits, has to do with repetition. If you think they’re understanding what you’re saying, you might be right, but not for the reasons you think. For example, you might say, “Do you want to go outside?” What is your body language conveying? Where are your eyes looking? The dog might hear the word “door” but is most likely associating the ‘word’ with your body language and eye gesture….walking toward the door & looking back and forth between your dog and the door.
In the dog world, a stare (direct eye contact) is a challenge. Dogs typically avoid looking directly into another’s eyes unless they ARE challenging or have been trained to do so. Because we, humans typically find looking into another’s eyes, respectful, often times that is how we approach dogs. If we stare at them, unwittingly or not, the signal we transmit is one of confrontation. A submissive dog will ‘give in’ ( lower his/her head, roll over). A dominant dog will stare back, growl, snarl and often escalate aggressive behavior until the other party backs down ( walks away, if a human).
There is conflicting advice on how to deal with a dominant dog regarding eye contact. Depending on the individual dog and the circumstances, generally, the safest thing to do is avoid looking directly into the dog’s eyes and look at the tip of his ear. This way, you are looking at the dog, able to gauge his body language, eye contact but are avoiding confrontation.
HEAD & NECK POSITION
If a dog holds his head lower, he could be fearful or deferring to you or another dog. If Fido holds his head high, he is more confident, perhaps even confrontational. When approaching either of these dogs, be aware of your own head, neck & body position. Are you approaching like a bully to a fearful or challenging dog? Are you approaching as if you are submissive? Your first meeting with a canine sets the tone.
INVOLVMENT AROUND THE HEAD
When a dog is a pup, the mom ‘corrects’ him/her around the muzzle or nape of the neck. I’m sure you’ve seen the runaway puppy of a litter? The mom asserts her leadership by carrying him/her back to where it belongs by the nape of the neck. The nape and muzzle are the most sensitive areas for your pooch. This is communication.
In dog fights, most ‘moves’ are directed toward these areas as well. Often times humans also use muzzle and scruff grabbing as a form of dislike for a behavior that has just taken place. How well this is received by Fido depends on the level of leadership or authority the dog regards the human. Humans could be asking for trouble.
This often times is the case with children. And unfortunately if done often enough can lead to that ‘unexpected’ redirection from the dog. We often see pictures of kids patting dogs on the head or hugging around the neck and many label this or see this as adorable. Although for a few dogs, they aren’t bothered. It’s generally not a good idea to allow this interference. Lets look at this from the dogs perspective. This is special pressure along with asserting authority (discussed more in the next section). Some dogs may tolerate this for awhile but it lights a fuse that eventually leads to an explosion….the bite. If you watch your dogs eyes, body when this happens, what does it say? Does Fido tense up? Are his eyes soft or looking stressed?
DOMINANT OR SUBMISSIVE BODY POSITION
Have you ever approached a dog or puppy and he/she urinates? Or reached out to pat Fido on the head and get snapped at? Why is this? Our position in respect to height to ground/height to dog ratio speaks volumes.
Think of it a invading a dogs space. Towering over or being ‘on top’ of a dog signals dominance. A in-charge individual will ‘puff up’ or get on the highest ground to appear larger, when approaching and signaling his position of authority or seniority, to a more inferior creature. Fido may also tower over or posture, rest his head or paw on the others back. How this other dog responds ( well mannered or confrontational) determines the next course of action.
Apply this to people. A person walks directly to the dog, places his/her hand on Fido’s head, hugs him: it’s the same scenario. Depending on the relationship between this person and dog determines the dog’s reaction. A dominant dog may repel such a challenge (bark, growl, snarl, snap) while a submissive dog may squat and urinate. However, walking to a dog’s side or squatting next to him is the less assertive approach. It sends the opposite message, “I am not a challenge’. But, once again, how it is received is much based on the mentality of the dog….inferior or superior.
Let’s take a nervous or fearful dog. They are less threatened by a person sitting down or kneeling. They are more likely to approach. Whereas, if you are standing or walking directly to them, they may back away or lunge. Sitting on the floor, one is even less threatening..
If you do this with a more assertive/confident dog, it will have a different effect. A more dominant dog could take advantage of the situation to up his ranks in the hierarchy. Especially if you pet him inappropriately, invade his space (called special pressure). This is often times where children get in trouble.
Our body language (how we approach, where/if we touch, our height ratio to the dog, eye contact) is so powerful. Often times it is the little mannerisms that people use while interacting with each other that sends a different message to that seemingly cuddly canine. When we gain the ability to be more aware, we become more respectful in the eyes of our furry friends.
Here is a little chart of some common mistakes people make when interacting with dogs, whether their own dogs or an unfamiliar one. Hopefully you will keep these in mind the next time you have an interaction with that cute canine!