Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) dogs do not speak human languages. The language barrier is very real, and it is important for us to understand that dogs are always communicating, we just need to know what we are looking at.
A happy dog is a loose dog. Their tails move, they move around, roll over, act playful. A stiff dog is not a happy dog. A stiff dog is an agitated dog and it is showing this by being stiff.
Dogs have many ways of showing they are uncomfortable. Excessive lip licking, water drinking, and yawning when not tired are signs that a dog is nervous or scared. Some dogs become quite gassy as well. It is not uncommon for adopters or dogs that had long journeys to report that their new dog empty’s the water dish all the time. It takes time for them to become comfortable.
When dogs interact with each other, they are always communicating even if they are not barking. Dogs that bow down and keep their rear end up in the air are inviting play. Dogs will often shake to tell a strange dog everything is okay. A lip lick or a yawn is a sign of nervousness. If one dog shakes and the other then also shakes, it is a good indicator that friendly play is around the corner. Direct eye contact can be taken as a challenge to dogs, both from other dogs and from people. It is important to remember not to try and stare down a strange dog, as this will put them into defense mode. A dog in defense mode will display several warning signs.
A dog stiffening up is the first sign they are uncomfortable. The body language becomes straightforward the more upset or scared the dog gets. It is important to remember that dogs warn us for a reason, and we need to take this seriously. Warning signs should never be punished or corrected. All this will serve to do is teach the dog not to give warnings in the future.
Dogs will stiffen up, ears up, tail up, when they are alerted to something unknown to them or they are nervous. They may lick their lips or whine nervously. They will often have their eyes to the side, exposing a lot of the white in the eyeball. This is the dog telling you it is nervous and not to come any closer.
The next step is the hair on the head and back of the neck standing up. This maybe accompanied by a soft growl. These are very clear warning signs. A dog with its hair up and growling is a dog that is saying “back off I am scared”.
If this warning sign is not heeded, the lips will curl up, exposing teeth. The growling will go from soft to loud, snarling, and intimidating. Depending on the breed of dog, the ears may fold back on the head. This is the final warning dogs give. This is a dog that is scared, and making itself look tough and scary to say “back off right now. I am about to defend myself”.
What happens next will depend on the dog, it’s history, and how scared it is. If all of these warnings are not heeded, the dog will be left with no choice but to defend itself the only way it knows how. With its teeth. Generally, the first bite will be a warning bite. Dogs generally see humans as big scary creatures and they do not want to get into a fight they might not win. A warning bite will be fast, and it will involve a sudden lunge, bite and retreat. Once the bite has been delivered the dog will retreat and continue warning as described in the above paragraph. It is possible depending on the dogs history that this step will be skipped, and it will move directly to the next step.
Full on attack mode. At this point all bets are off. An attack is much different then a warning bite. An attack will involve multiple bites in rapid succession, hard bites with intent to injure, as well as the shaking of the head on contact to tear flesh. This is a dog that feels it is in serious danger and has no other option but to defend itself. (Note: while it is important to try to never let it get to this, if you do find yourself victim to a dog attack, please remember it is only a dog. If a large dog is attacking you, use any means necessary to get that dog off of you. Most dogs will back off once the initial attack is rebuffed, however the damage that can be caused by a large dog attacking can be life altering and or life ending).
It is always important to be aware of the dogs body language in order to see how they are doing. If a dog is giving ample warning signs, it is the responsibility of the owner to protect their dog by removing the dog from the situation. There are many different training techniques to teach dogs not to be afraid of things but they all take time and patience.
Fear based issues should NEVER be fixed with corrections or discipline. A dog that is scared will not get that you‘re correcting it or that it has done something wrong. It will only learn to suppress its warnings, which will leave you with a dog that will go off without warning and possibly seriously injure itself, another dog, or a person. In order to fix these problems, we must get to the root of the problem and remove the fear the dog has.
While this section will explain the proper way to pet a dog, it is important to note that dogs have different comfort levels. There are many dogs out there that will very happily accept pets from anyone and everyone however those people want to pet them. These dogs usually make it quite clear that they want the attention! It is also important to note that behind every well behaved, friendly dog, is a lot of training and hard work that someone has put in. They do not come perfect.
The majority of rescue dog bites involve rescue volunteers and shelter workers. This makes sense as they are the ones who voluntarily work with these animals despite the troubles these dogs have. The problem is, once a dog bites a human it receives a label of “biter” and that dogs chances of a successful adoption are greatly reduced. Many rescue workers and volunteers do not know how to properly read a dogs body language, end up getting bit, and then leave the dog with a label it will never be able to shake.
This is not to say that the volunteers and rescue workers have ill intentions or purposely put themselves into danger. The reality is that dog rescue is extremely hard to get people to participate in, the work is never ending and their is always a lot to be done by not enough people. In short, rescue is chaos, and it is difficult to ensure every volunteer is trained in dog body language. People simply have good hearts and try to do the best they can. This is also not to say that when the dog bites it is only the dog that suffers. It is a traumatic, heartbreaking experience to be bitten by any dog, especially a dog that you are trying to help. So in order to avoid this, I have put together the proper method for how to pet a dog.
When was the last time you asked a dog permission before you pet it? We usually ask the owners for permission to pet the dog, and it is a dog owner’s responsibility to then read their dogs body language and decide if they want you to pet it. But what about an ownerless dog, a rescue dog. We must ask the dog ourselves if the dog is okay to be pet.
The first thing we must remember when petting a strange dog is that our own safety comes first. It is important to position your body in a way that will allow you to both protect yourself and get out of the situation quickly if something should happen. For this reason, rule number one, is NO sitting on your bum (in the case of a six pound chihuahua it is almost unavoidable, however a six pound chihuahua is not capable of putting human safety at risk. So while respect to the animal must be shown, the safety rules can be relaxed a little). Sitting on your bum makes you a sitting duck, unable to move away quickly should you need too. We also do not want to be standing up, as this can be intimidating to a scared dog. The proper position is to kneel down, knees bent, and at the ready to jump away should anything happen. We also want to be down on the dogs level, to make ourselves seem more approachable and also to be able to protect ourselves.
Once you have knelt down a good distance away to the dog, hold out your hands in front of you and invite the dog to come on over. Let the dog approach on its own and allow the dog to sniff you out. If the dog does not approach, you do not have permission to pet the dog. If the dog approach’s, smells, and backs away, you do not have permission to pet the dog. Reaching for the dog in this situation will not help the situation. If the dog comes up to you, sniffs, and places it’s head into your hands, or nudges you, or initiates any gentle contact, congratulations, you have permission to pet the dog.
The first rule of petting a dog is do NOT pet them on the top of the head. This can make a dog feel threatened. (Yes, many dogs love a good scratch on the top of their head, but those are pet dogs that have learned that people will not hurt them. Until you have established that trust and that connection, do not reach for the top of their head). The proper way to pet a dog is under the muzzle, rub around where their neck meets their head. It is important to always pay attention to the body language of the dog, a loose dog is a happy dog, if the dog starts to stiffen up, it is time to back off.
Once you have pet the dog under the muzzle for a few seconds (2-3) stop, remove your hands, and hold them out again. Let the dog tell you to continue petting it, it will do this by nudging your hands or initiating contact again. It is important to not over do your contact and to continually ask the dog for permission to pet, so as to make the dog feel respected and confident that if they are uncomfortable it will stop.
Another important note is body placement. Keep the core of your body on an angle, not directly facing the dog, and use the arm closest to the dog to pet it. This will not give the dog a direct lunge at your torso or throat should things go sour, and will allow you to use the arm in between your body and your dog to create distance between yourself and the dog. For this reason, it is suggested that you pet a dog on the upper chest. Dogs love to have their chests scratched, and that is where you will be able to feel the lunge coming before it actually happens. Chances are you will only have a split second warning, but that split second could be the difference between a bite and no bite.
There are many rescue dogs that are very friendly and will openly come to you for attention and love and pats. A dog that is begging you to pet it has given you permission. It is important to continue to ask that permission, even if a dog appears friendly and open to touch. The only way we know that everything is good, is if they offer their continued consent. By asking for consent instead of forcing unwanted touch, we give the dogs confidence and will remove the fear they have. Dogs that are not afraid, and are confident, do not bite. And dogs that don’t have a bite history get adopted faster and stay adopted. We always want to ensure that every interaction with these dogs is positive, beneficial, and sets them up for success!