Steven Bishop is a certified dog trainer and teaches group classes and private lessons. He is also a member of the Pet Professional Guild and a C.G.C./S.T.A.R. Puppy Evaluator. He lives in Columbia with his wife, two daughters and his dog, Duncan.
Just outside of San Francisco, on June 18 of last year, a dog fatally bit a child as he played in his grandparents’ backyard. According to the interviews that followed, family and friends stated the dog was never aggressive, never a problem, and they just couldn’t figure out what happened. As you read further, the family admitted that the children were trying to ride the dog.
This incident exemplifies the fact that it is not enough to have an adult present when children and dogs are together. Adults need to recognize the signs and behaviors in a dog before a bite occurs.
Robin Bennett, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, in her recent blog, Why Supervising Dogs and Kids Doesn’t Work, points out that you should not “marvel that your dog has the patience of Job, …” but you should be “thankful your dog has good bite inhibition and intervene before it’s too late.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year. The American Humane Association states that 82% of dog bites treated in the emergency room were to children under 15. And 70% of dog bite fatalities are children under the age of 10. Most bites could be anticipated and avoided if more people were familiar with the more subtle signs dogs use to communicate.
Some of the signals the average person is unfamiliar with can include panting when the dog is not thirsty, yawning when the dog is not tired, look-aways, and whale eye, referring to being able to see the whites of the dog's eye.
These things must be taken in context though. A long, low growl from a dog may be an invitation to play if it is accompanied by a play bow. It may also be a signal that he wants to be left alone if it coincides with the hair being raised and the ears held back and close to the head.
This article will only discuss some of the less familiar signals a dog may give in ascension from the somewhat uncomfortable to an imminent bite. This is by no means all inclusive and it would behoove people to watch their dog so they are aware of when the dog is content and when he is becoming uncomfortable.
When a dog is beginning to feel uncomfortable, he might lip lick or yawn. It is unclear as yet if these are behaviors the dog will do to calm himself, the person, or both. Lip licking is just that: the dog, usually repeatedly, licks his lips. Yawning is a signal that should be taken in context. When the dog is not tired it can be an easily seen and early sign of stress.
Although as a general rule, dogs do not like to stare another dog or a person in the eye, they do continually glance at the face of the other dog or person. With a look-away, the dog will avoid all eye contact and will probably even turn his head away from the person.
Although some believe it is another behavior all together, some believe the walk-away is just an exaggeration of the look-away. The difference, as the name suggests, is when the dog gets up and physically attempts to remove himself from the situation or area that is making him uncomfortable.
Look-aways are often seen when a dog is being hugged by a person. Hugs can make a dog feel trapped and can therefore lead to a bite very quickly. Although people find hugs acceptable and enjoy them, most dogs do not and would prefer to avoid them, particularly with people they are unfamiliar with.
If the dog cannot remove himself from the situation, he may try to make himself look small or unobtrusive. The dog will lower his posture, his ears will be held close to the head, and his tail may be held between his legs. This is the point when the dog is beginning to be dangerous. If he feels there is no escape, he attempts to make himself smaller. If he continues to feel antagonized, this behavior may turn to a bite.
When a bite is becoming more imminent, the dog may freeze or show whale-eye. In earlier stages, the freeze may be an attempt to become less of an apparent threat. In these later stages, the freeze seems to be preparation for a spring and bite. Again, these have to be taken in context with the other signals.
When playing, dogs will often freeze in what is believed to be a way of taking a break or to say “that was just in fun and I’m not going to follow up with anything more aggressive.” If the dog is being aggressive, the freeze may also be accompanied with a snarl, a low growl, ears pinned to the head and back, piloerection (bristling of the hair), and whale-eye.
Whale-eye, or half-moon eye is when the dog will stare while the head is turned away exposing a large amount of the white of the eye. This should not be confused with a sideways glance. It usually occurs with a freeze and is a hard stare.
The last signal before a bite may be a growl or muzzle punch. In his book, "How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind," Dr. Stanley Coren discusses vocalizations in dogs.
Although most people are aware that short, high pitch vocalizations may mean fear or pain. Lower pitches of longer duration may be what are referred to as “distance increasing” signals, or that the dog is getting uncomfortable and would like the person to go away. It may coincide with a tooth display or snarling and can quickly turn to a snap or bite.
Likewise, a muzzle punch is usually the last step before a bite. It is a quick, hard, sharp jab with the muzzle and is intended to make the person leave, or at the least, leave them alone.
Finally, the dog may bite.
A child should be taught to never approach an unfamiliar dog. Always ask before petting an unfamiliar dog. Most dogs enjoy being scratched under the chin and this is usually a much safer option. Never tease a dog, pull their hair, tail, or ears. And never put your face in an unfamiliar dog’s face or try to ride a dog.
It is important to remember not to punish a dog for these behaviors. Dogs do not have the luxury of speaking, so they use the signals available to them. By punishing these behaviors, the dog may learn to skip the more subtle signs and go straight for the bite.
It is important for the person to learn to read these signals so the incident does not escalate to that point. At the earliest signs a dog is becoming uncomfortable (lip licking, yawning, look-aways), it may be best to separate the dog and the child for a time.
And above all, make sure your dog is properly socialized with people and other dogs in an appropriate manner. Don’t wait until there is a problem.
For more in depth information see Sarah Kalnajs’ DVD, "The Language of Dogs: Understanding the Canine Body Language and Other Communication Signals" or visit the website for Dr. Sophia Yin, veterinarian and animal behaviorist.
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