Canine Body Language:
Note: This article was written as a handout for veterinary technicians, groomers, shelter workers and trainers to accompany a seminar presentation. If you are an average dog-lover and attempt to implement any suggestion here, without the thousands of hours of experience that goes along with being a dog-care professional, you may fail. Failure when dealing with aggressive dogs means you will be bitten - possibly severely. This information is intended to educate and entertain, with no express or implied promise of effectiveness. That being said, I have handled tens of thousands of dogs over a period of more than 30 years and have only received one bit that was more than a pin-prick. So, lector, emptor -- let the reader beware.
Any business that cares for dogs and cats includes all the common dangers present in any workplace and more. In a normal business you might slip and fall on a wet floor or electrocute yourself while mopping up the water. Either of those dangers can be minimized or avoided with reasonable caution.
The problem with animal businesses is that dogs and cats don’t follow the same rules as mops and electrical outlets. They are neither uniform in their danger nor neutral to your existence. In providing normal care and treatment it is necessary to hold and handle them in ways that may be uncomfortable or downright painful for the animal. This pain and discomfort may cause defensive violence aimed directly at the responsible person – which may be you. While normal workplace hazards are often observable, such as a puddle of water or a frayed extension cord, an animal’s aggression may be virtually invisible until it explodes.
Because of these variables, no set of rules will guarantee your safety while working with animals. However, knowing the way they give warning of nasty intentions may help you remain free of serious damage. While cats are certainly capable of biting and clawing, dogs are far more likely to cause debilitating injuries to staff so this presentation will focus on canines.
Before we start laying out the warning signs of a biting dog we should look at some cautions that influence any rules that follow.
- You really cannot trust an owner’s opinion of his or her animal the first time you see it. Though everyone claims “He’s never done anything like that before,” in a few cases it’s true. Every biting dog starts his career without a history of biting. You do not want to be the dog’s first bite victim, nor is second, third or fourth. The idea is to remain unscathed.
- If the chart isn’t flagged it doesn’t mean you have a safe animal on your hands.An animal’s behavior can change between vet, grooming or daycare visits. A dog with a non-obvious medical condition may suddenly experience pain during a routine exam or play session. All dogs and cats are capable of initiating defensive violence at the drop of a hat or the prod of a finger. You cannot count on an animal’s track record to keep you safe. For pet owners, this can translate as, “A friend’s dog may have had a traumatic experience sinc you last saw it. Just remember, behavior can change over time and just because a dog has always liked you doesn’t mean it will always like you. Aggression is a normal, developmental behavior that may increase as the animal reaches social maturity.
- Some owners know their dogs are dangerous but aren’t going to warn you.You may get a client whose dog is so dangerous that one or more clinics or groomers have refused to see the animal. The owner may not automatically offer that information, for obvious reasons. Sometimes this is merely wishful thinking on their part. They are hoping that Fluffy bit the vet or groomer handled her incorrectly. Other clients have been through this enough times that they are plainly dishonest in hopes of finding a vet who will treat their dog, or a groomer who can trim its nails. Their dishonesty may set you up for a nasty introduction to Fluffy, Biter of Vet Techs, groomers, trainers and receptionists.
- Never take anyone else’s word for what a dog will or won’t do.Adopted/rescued dogs often come with no information about their past. Some of them have never been to a clinic before. Aggression may pop up at any step of the exam as the result of a particularly startling procedure or as the “last straw” reaction of a very upset canine. Additionally, rescue and shelter people know that being frank about a dog’s aggression will probably prevent an adoption. Most rescue and shelter workers hate euthanasia. They will sometimes give assurances about behavior that are directly opposite of the dog’s real history or may withhold information that might give you some warning.
- Some dogs give no warning before they bite. This can be a matter of breed type or previous experience. The only way you can avoid this type of bite is to be quick, alert, trained and lucky. Assuming that a dog will bite is a fatiguing but safer assumption than believing that cuteness and past visits are an indication of niceness.
- If an owner has attempted to stop the aggression at home, there is a chance that the only things stopped were the warning signs that precede an attack.Few people understand how to inhibit a specific behavior, even professional trainers. The most common tools to “fix” aggression are food treats and clobbering. The food treats are incapable of inhibiting a behavior and clobbering usually heightens the dog’s fearfulness. Both of these solutions blur the warning signs of an attack but do not make the animal trustworthy.
- The Behavior of Dogs: From a handler’s perspective.
Dogs have very few behavioral traits in common. Any specific traits common to most dogs may be missing or overly strong in any individual animal. These variances may be the result of specific breeding or lack of any control over breeding. Some breeders intentionally remove traits, such as “barkless” Basenjis. Other breeders attempt to make behaviors inordinately strong, such as a Border Collies willingness to stalk and chase sheep until its paws are bloody. In some cases, breeding for cosmetic features may make the dog literally incapable of offering a normal version of a behavior. It may also be because the animal is physically incapable of displaying “normal” postures and behaviors.
For example, wolves offer many postures and facial movements that indicate what they are about to do. When they are aroused, the hair along their spine (hackles) tends to stand straight up. They fold their ears back against their heads and dip their front end down a bit. They purse their lips (flews) together and hold their mouth open very slightly to indicate that they are uncomfortable and thinking of ham-stringing someone. Flew-pursing is often accompanied by a low, soft growl. (Note: Low, soft growls are very serious. A dog who is making lots of noise may try to drive you away, but may be willing to back down.) As a wolf feels more threatened, its growl intensifies and the mouth becomes almost closed. If the threat doesn’t back off, the wolf raises its lips, exposing the teeth and causing the nose to wrinkle like a Shar Pei’s forehead. They also try to stand as tall as they can and walk with stiff, jerky motions. So much for wolves. They passed along some wonderful warning signs that anyone could read in an instant. Then breeders invented Chow Chows, Shar Peis, Komondor, English Bulldogs, Basset Hounds and Basenjis. Each of these breeds is virtually incapable of offering wolf-like warnings of an attack. Here’s a recap…
Chow Chows and Shar Peis: Their poor noses are so filled with fat that they would need some kind of apparatus to get the lips high enough to show their teeth. Such an apparatus does exist – it’s used in the movie business to make the average Rottweiler look fierce when the cameras roll – even if the dog isn’t ready. Imagine the teasing that goes on when the rough, tough movie Rottweiler has to admit that he simply couldn’t get his lips up for the part.
- Komondor: The middle European tendency toward breeding “corded” coats makes it impossible to recognize this dog’s face, let alone interpret what it’s trying to communicate. Old English Sheep Dogs are another example of facial camouflage. Along with unreadable faces, you can forget about noticing whether a Komondor or Old English has its hackles up, it’s impossible to know. With breeds like Mexican Hairless and Chinese Crested, there are no hackles. The point to acknowledge is that many breeds aren’t going to give you warning because they can’t, for one reason or another.
- English Bulldogs: The undershot jaw and misshapen lips of a Bulldog defy any consistent observation. In most cases, a Bulldog’s lower incisors are always visible and therefore can’t communicate anything other than a horrible occlusion.
- Basset Hounds were created by selecting for dwarfism. They were once normal, tall French hounds. After generations of breeding only dwarfs, long-legged Bassets are no longer seen. The distortion of their ears makes it very difficult for the dog to control them, let alone selectively rotate them when frightened or aggressive. It’s also difficult to tell if the dog standing as tall as it can or walking with stiff, jerky motions. These two physical signs are connected with aggression in wolves and many breeds of dogs and virtually impossible for a basset hound to display.
- Basenjis: Basenjis have the equipment to bark, yodel and growl, but may not, even when they are threatened. I think noisy dogs in central Africa made tasty appetizers for leopards. The left-over Basenjis kept their mouths shut and still do. In general, individuals of this breed rarely offer audible tones for any reason. Their ears are full-prick and can indicate some things about their intentions.
Ultimately, the body and facial movements of a dog may or may not mean anything about his immediate behavior. This is usually the result of breeding, but can be caused by simple vanity. If you try to “read” a Kerry Blue Terrier by its facial expression you will be quickly frustrated. You must first be able to see a dog’s eyes before you can read them. Kerry Blue Terriers have facial hair that completely covers their eyes. This top-knot, called a fall, compounds a dog’s natural fearfulness by forcing them to go through life half-blinded. This increases the likelihood that the dog will become startled and bite at fast moving targets – and makes it more difficult for you to be warned of the coming attack. Old English Sheepdogs, Wheaton Terriers, some Airedales, Shi Tzus and any dog wearing a “fall” should be handled with care until you know them well. If you handle one of these dogs, remember to move slowly or at least more slowly than the person closest to the dog.
Just as increased facial hair can cause a problem, breeding for the shape of a dog’s body can throw a wrench into our ability to read a dog. Trying to use normal body language and postures to read a Pug may be a waste of time. Their bodies are so overly muscled and distorted that they always look like they are moving with stiff, jerky motions – a common sign of impending aggression. A similar distortion has made dog tails less than accurate in predicting their owners’ behavior. Though wolves are incredibly expressive with their tails, some breeds have lost the ability to fully control their tails and others have no tails at all. Needless to say, you can’t read a blank page If the dog has no tail to wag, you’re going to have to look elsewhere for early signs of aggression. With those cautions in mind, here are some general thoughts about reading a dog.
Dog Reading Basics:
Eyes: Virtually all dogs perceive eye contact as a threat or challenge. Most dogs don’t care if you challenge them. Looking soulfully into the eyes of a typical dog isn’t going to make any difference in how they react to you. By contrast, dogs who question your motives may perceive a simple glance as a serious threat. A touchy dog sees eye contact as a sign of aggression and the angle of the eye contact as a gauge of how seriously to take your threat. Eye contact from below is rarely enough to trigger a bite. Eye contact on the same level indicates you are as big as the dog. Being on par means the dog has no size advantage and your threat will be taken more seriously. If you are towering over the dog and staring downward, you are a major threat and you are less likely to be trusted. You can guess that this may one of the few leftovers from their wolf ancestors. If a fellow wolf’s normal gaze is four inches above yours, he may be 30 pounds heavier, faster and more dangerous than you. Backing down from this animal may be a smart idea.
Note: Wolf theorists who advocate “dominating” dogs rely on using threatening eye-contact to maintain control. Wolf theorists rarely have to physically restrain a dog in the confines of a small exam room or cage. I never make direct eye contact with a dog unless I am deliberately trying to test a dog’s tendency to bite. While working in the humane industry I often laid on the ground to intentionally make myself as short as possible and therefore non-threatening to a potentially nasty dog. I never made eye-contact, even from below the dog’s eye level. This was often done in a kennel with a growling, snarling or otherwise nasty dog. I was never attacked while getting lower than an obviously dangerous dog. My standard procedure with a dangerous dog was to enter the kennel, turn my back to the dog and sit down –which plainly contradicts the traditional advice to “never turn your back on a dangerous dog.” Just remember, regardless of my success, your mileage may vary. Don’t assume that lower automatically means safer.
Before we move beyond the eyes, it’s important to remember that openly nasty dogs aren’t the only ones who can hurt you. Most truly aggressive dogs display their intentions well in advance of an attack. That doesn’t mean that if a dog is not making eye contact, you can relax. Fearful dogs tend to turn their head slightly away from the threat and observe it from the corners of their eyes. They are trying to avoid eye contact precisely because they feel threatened and don’t want to trigger what they perceive as your attack. In an area where they could move away from you, they would – keeping their peripheral vision on you the whole time. The critical problem in a veterinary exam room is that the lead/leash used to control the dog also prevents escape and eliminates a passive solution to the dog’s fear. (As I write this I can see a generic dog’s head, angled upward and slightly away from me, with large, panicked eyes watching the object of his fear - me.) Note: While exam and treatment rooms are places that obviously heighten a dog’s defensive aggression, reception areas can be the site of an attack or may inadvertently start a chain of events that makes the examination more touchy. If a dog is greeted with direct eye contact by a receptionist or kennel worker, it may taint the dog’s attitude before it even sees the vet or tech.
Head, Neck and Shoulders:
The spot at the top of a dog’s shoulders is called the withers. It is the spot that breed-clubs use to measure the height of a dog. To dogs, their head, neck and shoulders form a highly personal area that is behaviorally more sensitive than we consider our groin. This sensitive area runs from the top of the shoulders to the top of the head. A casual touch in those areas can trigger a bite. If you have ever gone to a dog park and watched two dogs face off, you’ll recognize this in an instant. The two dogs first come cheek to cheek and make side-long glances at each other. One dog will then try to put his head or paw on the withers of the other dog. If the confrontation is light hearted, this is usually the cue for the “touched” dog to spin quickly and return the favor. Both dogs will then run a few steps away and repeat the cheek-to-cheek, “I dare you to touch my withers” mock-aggression. Eventually they lose interest in the sport and find someone else to playfully challenge. If the dogs are serious, the touch on the withers will cause an instant, fierce eruption and mutual assault. The initial attack is often at the top of the shoulders as one dog attempts to remain on top of the fight. “Going for the throat” is usually seen as the “underdog” hits the ground and ends up on his back. For practical purposes, greeting a dog by bending over and attempting to “pat the nice doggie” on the head is lunacy. If the dog is sitting on an exam table and you move your hand gently over the dogs head and then rest your hand on the dog’s shoulders, you have just broken a very big safety rule. If you happen to be staring into the dog’s eyes as you do this, you will compound the chance that you will be bitten. This increases the owner’s likelihood of commenting “He’s never done that before.”
Throat and Chest:
The average dog likes having his or her chest and throat scratched or rubbed. If they are well socialized to humans, this is a pretty safe form of contact. Though some dogs will spark at virtually any contact, they are rarely able to bite a hand directly touching their chest unless they are standing and then back up slightly. If the dog is sitting, a casual “dead hand” touch of the chest is a good way to test the waters and begin the relationship. By “Dead Hand” I mean that you extend the hand without moving your fingers. Merely touch the back of your hand to the dog’s chest and see what happens. The lack of movement from you hand makes the touch more like an incidental “bump” that is neither threatening nor unexpected. Even if the dog reacts violently, you have a pretty fair chance of getting your hand out of the way before he can reposition his body to bite you.
Legs: Most dogs assume that touching a paw means a nail trim. Most dogs don’t like having their nails trimmed. Don’t grab their paws as a first greeting. The common restraint for foreleg blood-draws and injections requires the handler to grip the dog’s elbow and shove the entire leg forward. This requires that you place your other arm over the dog’s withers and apply some pressure. If you include my caution about touching the withers with immobilizing a dog’s foreleg, you’ll realize that this combination could trigger aggression. As you shove the dog’s leg forward, he arches his neck, raises his chest upward while thrusting with his hind legs. This will shoot him upward and is intended to break your control over his shoulders. His neck will swing left and right with his mouth wide-open. He’s looking for a target at this point and if you attempt to continue your restraint, you will be at a very big disadvantage. There are several variations on this theme: biting the person in front of him, staying on three feet and trying to whip around and bite you without bothering to break your grip and trying to leap forward, off the table.
Wolves are very expressive with their tails. Dogs have so many different types of tails (or lack of tails) that using wolf knowledge to interpret dog language is difficult. Generally speaking, a tail, swishing back gently swishing back and forth is a good thing. As the tail elevates and the swish turns into a short, jerky twitch it’s a bad thing – its a threat, not a sign of happiness. This over-the-back short stroke wagging is called flagging. That’s because it looks like a kid waving a 4th of July flag back and forth. Tucked tails usually mean fearfulness.
Obviously, if you are handling a Pug, Elkhound, Chow, Husky, Terrier, Bulldog, Doberman, Schnauzer or any breed with a modified tail carriage, the above rules don’t count for much. With an Old English Sheepdog, butt-wagging is pretty noticeable and if there was a tail, it would look just like any other dog’s. Obviously, there isn’t a tail to elevate or drop and instead of looking for what’s there, you’ll be limited to what’s not. The way to read the tailless Sheep Dog is to watch for the butt to stop wiggling. That means a change in attitude of some kind. Learning to look for the absence of body language is as much a part of this topic as reading ears, eyes or posture.
As with tails, ears have a few simple meanings which are often clouded by breed-type. A normally healthy wolf carries its ears fully erect, called “full prick.” As the dog becomes a little concerned about its environment the ears rotate backward and may lie flat against the head. Folding the ears back can be a sign of fear or may be preparation for an attack. The ears don’t tell you much more than that without adding it to the sum of other things you can see. Ears back with tail up and flagging is not a good thing. The dog is just about to attack. Ears back with tail tucked is not a good thing, but the dog is obviously intimidated and you should be cautious about furthering his fear.
Once again, breeding heavily influences a dog’s ear control. Cropped ears artificially make a dog look aggressive. Lop ears have no cartilage or muscle to control them and reading a Basset’s ears is almost pointless. The only thing you can read from watching a floppy ear is how far it rotates clockwise or counterclockwise – and that may or may not mean anything. At best you can use floppy ear movement as a way of knowing that something has changed in the dog’s attitude.
If you have ever watched two dogs greet, you’ve seen inguinal investigation. One dog stands still while the other slides his nose inside the other dog’s hind leg. The dog receiving this attention usually stands still and welcomes the contact. He or she may lift their leg a bit to facilitate the investigation. While all mankind assumes that greeting should be in the form of patting a nice doggie on the head, the dogs would prefer to be goosed a bit. If you’re wondering what this has to do with body language and safety, consider this. If you wish to switch your hold from a dog’s shoulders and make it a bit more comfortable, move one had to the dogs knee. Gently grasp the dog above the knee the way you would take a book from a shelf – thumb on one side, four fingers on the other. Don’t squeeze hard, just make it a gentle touch. The fingers on the inside of the leg leg should be able to slightly feel the femoral artery pulse. This simple touch can buy three and four seconds of passive behavior. It can also allow for a friendly greeting with a dog who would be otherwise shocked and intimidated by a huge, ape-like creature hovering over the top of him.
Danger and Safety at the Same Time:
There is a huge irony to using your knowledge of canine body language to be safe. The irony is that by placing yourself at greater risk you are less likely to be at risk. If this sounds like nonsense, consider the following. Dogs usually bite because they feel threatened. A good way to be less threatening is to get down close to the dog’s level. If a bite does occur, your proximity to the dog makes facial and neck wounds much more likely. However, you are far less likely to trigger a bite when you are on the ground.
Note: Do not confuse this for suggesting that you receive an attack by going to the ground. Once a dog is attacking you, lying down is not likely to help you.
To see how knowing dog body language can help you communicate, here are some thoughts for actively defusing aggression with a potentially dangerous dog.
- Get down to the dog’s level if you can.
- Keep your hands close to your body and don’t wave them around.
- Do not attempt to raise your hand above the dog’s head in greeting. Any movement over the dog’s head will be viewed with suspicion and/or fear.
- If you must touch the dog, attempt to get your hand underneath the dog’s head and make a soft touch in the flank or rear. You can actually slip your hand inside the leg and attempt an inguinal touch in many cases. This can lead to a polite reintroduction and may neutralize the tension.
- Never make direct eye contact with the dog. Never. Use your peripheral vision to get a wide-angle view of the animal. If this is uncomfortable for you, go to the county pound and practice with the most aggressive dog you can find. Sit in the aisle and test the difference between direct eye contact and looking away. Sit facing 90° to the dog and see if that makes a difference. At the shelter, you aren’t on the clock and are protected by chain link. Take some M&M’s and periodically eat one as you sit and listen to the sounds of a dangerous animal. The chocolate will act to trigger an alimentary response and drop your blood pressure, hear rate and respiration. In other words, it will calm you down and make you more calm when you are with an unrestrained dog in an exam room.
- The suggestion that offering your fist to a dog is safer than offering your fingers ignores the points we have already covered about canine dentition. Dog teeth are made to rip through things like closed fists, ball and socket joints, corded neck muscles and anything else they come in contact with. The safest place for your hand is under the dog’s mouth rather than over. Bending over a dog with a closed fist is far more likely to cause a bite than an open hand underneath the dog’s mouth.
- Move slowly or not at all. Quick motions tend to make dogs nervous. If you have to touch the dog, try to make your movements fluid and smooth. Stiff, jerky motions are usually perceived as threatening.
- Take a break. One way to defuse a situation is to walk away from it. If a dog is close to biting someone, decide if taking a break is better than forcing the issue. No two situations will be the same. You will have to evaluate whether a break in the action may make the dog more tractable.
- If you are serious about learning to avoid bites, volunteer at a shelter that offers kennel services and euthanasia. Holding stray and poorly socialized dogs is a great way to extend your expertise and give you lots and lots of experience, fast.
- There is no set of rules that will keep you safe with all dogs. A few simple changes in your behavior can decrease your chance of being attacked. The most important thing is to be focused when handling any dog and learn to look and listen for the warning signs of aggression. If a dog suddenly stiffens during an exam, there’s probably a reason for it. If you hear a very soft, almost gentle growl, be concerned. If a dog’s tail suddenly tucks or rises into a flagging position, make sure you see the change. Close observation is a key ingredient to your safety and the safety of your colleagues.
- If you are attacked, try to put something in the dog’s mouth other than you or any other human. Do not try to strike or hit the dog. Just take some object and let the dog bite it as long as he wants. Try to back out of the room and end the violence as quickly as possible.
Evolution of Canine Social Behavior
The Other End of the Leash
You may also view a collection of articles regarding various aspects of dog behavior at the author’s website. www.clickandtreat.com