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— March 13, 2012 —
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

How to speak “Dog”.

For this tail, I’d like to explain a little about dog’s “language” and how to interpret it. I’d like to focus on a couple of pre-bite indicators that everyone should learn to recognize. I firmly believe that most dog bites are avoidable and it is human error that is to blame in many cases.

As a trainer, I have made a study of reading dogs and their “language.” It helps me to decipher how they are feeling about the training and whether they are absorbing what I’m trying to teach.

I am often asked questions like, “What does it mean when Fido does this or that? What is he trying to say?” I often recommend Dr. Stanley Coren’s book “How to Speak Dog” because it helps the reader actually read a dog’s behavior.

I suggest that if you want to learn how to read dogs, go to the dog park and watch them. Don’t just watch the group of dogs, but watch individual dogs. Look at their posture and their facial expression. Pay special attention to their eyes, ears and tail. The majority of their expressions are fleeting, lasting only a few moments. If you aren’t really watching, you’ll miss it. I also try to explain to people that dogs do not have quite the same thought process that we have. While everyone knows this on the surface, we still try to attribute human meaning to every nuance of canine behavior. What I have learned over the years is that most canine communication breaks down into a few general ideas.

1. I’m happy.

2. I’m playful.

3. I’m not happy.

4. I’m excited/stimulated

5. I’m stressed.

6. I’m angry.

7. I’m uncomfortable or scared.

8. I give up.

9. Warning. Danger!

In general, we can usually figure out what is causing each of these signals. If there is a sudden noise outside and our dogs start barking, we know what they are warning us about. Sometimes however, the causes may be more subtle. A dog that isn’t feeling well may simply lay down and pant for no apparent reason. While I don’t expect to cover all of this in a single article, I would like to discuss some of the most common missed signals that dogs give. This week, I want to cover the ones that may predict aggression. (This is by no means all inclusive. There are entire books on the subject. I hope this encourages the reader to do more research.)

Everyone knows a dog guarding a yard, giving off ferocious barks may bite, but a calm dog can bite as well. Everyone also knows what a happy dog looks like. They are loose in their posture and their eyes convey a soft expression. Generally they will have a calm demeanor, but calmness doesn’t always predict friendly. Here are two examples where the dog seemed calm, but was showing signs which predicted aggression.

By now you’ve probably heard about T.V. reporter Kyle Dyer who was bitten in the face by an Argentinian Dogo. If not, here is a link:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TABUKagZ5mA (warning-graphic)

To every dog trainer out there, this was a comedy of errors. The dog warned her before the bite, but she didn’t read the warning signs. There was lip licking (uncomfortable, pacifying) looking away as she first leaned in (avoidance) then he stiffened up and flashed his teeth. When that didn’t work, he bit her. Most people recognize what the flash of teeth means, but by then it was too late. She had already leaned in too far and the bite was coming. Recognizing the dog’s signals (lip licking, avoidance) prior to the bite could have prevented this all together.

Here is another video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6SDOTzmbSs (warning-graphic)

In this video, the signals are even more obvious. The lip licking is evident, as is the avoidance. The dog in the video is a police dog. Despite the comment made by the narrator near the end of the video, the dog’s training is irrelevant here. The reporter is invading the dog’s space. That is threatening and this dog is reacting like any other dog in a threatening situation. Pay close attention during the slow motion scenes. You can see the dog try to back away, but the reporter keeps advancing. Finally, with nowhere to retreat, the dog strikes out at the reporter.

What most people don’t realize is that to the dog, the mouth and teeth are weapons. When they intend to be non-threatening, they will point it away from other dogs or people. My own dogs will lean away and avoid looking at me when I hug them. They accept it because they trust me, but they don’t love it. If you look at the videos again, you will see instances where the dogs try to avoid or point away from the reporters. (This is not to say that all dogs dislike hugging. There are dogs that do like to be hugged, but their reactions will be different.)

This attempt to point the mouth and teeth away from the human while still watching our every move leads to another sign that can predict aggression. “Whale eye” or “half moon eye” is where the dog’s eyes show only a narrow slit of white around the colored portion of the eye (iris). The reason for this is that the dog is trying to see what you are doing without escalating the situation. The dog is trying to watch us by turning only their eyes towards us NOT their mouth. Many times this will be combined with widely dilated pupils.

If you notice in this pictures, the human is pointing her mouth directly at the dog. It is the dog who is trying not to aim his weapon at the human.

This dog is showing the two main signals we are discussing. He is licking his lips and glancing at something to the side.

This is only a small portion of the information that could be discussed with regards to dog bites and reading pre-bite indicators. Next week I will talk a little more about predicting bites and how to avoid children getting bit.

In his book, “How to Speak Dog” first published in 2000, Dr. Stanley Coren discusses the concept of how dogs communicate. Dr. Coren is a noted researcher in the fields of psychology, including human vision and hearing, neuropsychology, brain, laterality, handedness, birth stress, sleep, behavior genetics and cognitive processing. Dr. Coren has won a number of awards for his research, and the quality of his contribution to science has been recognized by a number of major scientific organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, the Canadian Psychological Association, the American Association of Applied and Preventative Psychology, and others, which have conferred upon him the title of Fellow. In addition his ability to communicate with people has been recognized by his winning of the Robert E. Knox Master Teacher Award and by his service on the American Psychological Association's, Public Information Committee.

While his profession is mostly human-related, Dr. Coren has turned his keen eye to the interactions that dogs have with each other and with humans. He has attempted to decipher the subtle “language” that dogs possess. In his book, we find a translation guide of sorts that may help us hear exactly what our dogs are trying to tell us.