Body language

Often it is reported that a dog has bitten without warning. This may be the case in a small number of incidences for example maternal aggression or idiopathic aggression/rage syndrome however in most cases the dog will have tried to convey it’s intentions or unease towards a particular situation.
The behaviours will vary depending on the level of arousal from simply pulling back on the lead, raising a paw to possibly inappropriate elimination of an act of aggression depending on the distance between the dog and the aversive stimuli. With the severity of the reaction becoming more powerful if the behaviour goes unnoticed, ignored or misunderstood.

Dogs are social animals and in the wild would live within a pack, fighting one another using energy resources which could be best directed in other areas would not be beneficial to their survival. Therefore a complex form of ritualised visual and auditory communication evolved enabling dogs to signal their intentions and emotions through body posture, vocalisations, facial expressions and scent marking.

Generally dogs do not like the Veterinary Surgery and in some instances may act aggressively towards the Vet or owner possibly to prevent the procedure required from taken place. Very rarely will an aggressive reaction have no warning rather that the behaviours leading up to the aggressive act have gone unnoticed or misunderstood.

The scenario may go as follows:
The dog may be uneasy in the waiting room surrounded by strange dogs, people, sounds and smells and may respond by blinking and nose licking, although a natural behaviour it is also indicative of a stress response and used to create a break in the current situation.

Entering the consulting room the amount of stress grows with the dog standing in the corner of the consulting room with his ears laid back, turned head and raised paw.

The Vet continues to approach the dog even though the dog is signalling he wants to be left alone.

The next behaviour to be displayed could be ‘standing crouched with tail tucked under’ showing that the dog is becoming distressed and fearful, this is the middle ground before appeasement turns to extreme discomfort and then aggression

In this case where the dogs signals have so far been ignored he would be likely to proceed by lying down with one leg up which is typically seen as submissive and is part of ritualised behaviour used in order to surrender and therefore subconsciously provoke the object of fear or discomfort (in this case the vet) to cease their behaviour and when this fails to have the desired response the dog feels even more threatened.

Followed then by an audible warning in the form of growling or snarling with the lip lifted showing teeth showing that he is now so uncomfortable that he may have to resort to physical aggression.

The next level is the snap which is usually (but not always) in the air but in the direction of what the dog perceives to be the threat, this is usually the final warning before a serious bite incident occurs.

The above scenario is indicative of fear related behaviour and is only giving as an example, there are many other behaviours that can lead to aggression.

Fearful dogs may also show ambivalent signals or mixed signals. The head may be raised with the eyes staring while the rest of the body is lowered with the tail held between the legs and wagging, or may be starring whilst backing away. These postures of frontal threat with rear end retreat may suddenly reverse. The eyes may be diverted but the hair over the rump may possibly be elevated and the tail becomes vertical. (Beaver B, 1999)

Also it is important to mention that the displaying and reading of body language can be severely impaired in some breeds due to selective breeding

The fight or flight response is the dogs survival mode. The autonomic nervous system controls a number of body systems including the cardiovascular and the respiratory system. When the system is activated the body increases heart and respiratory rates, increases mental alertness and decreases digestive activity allowing the blood to be utilised in skeletal muscle tissue for quick movement and defence.

Fight response occurs when the dog turns to take on the aggressor, showing the dogs confidence and willingness to stand it’s ground

The flight response occurs when the dog flees from and escapes the aggressor. The dog shows a lack of confidence and would prefer to avoid confrontation. However a dog that is fearful may become violent or aggressive literally to fight its way out of situation where it feels threatened or out of control.

Displacement activities
Involve behaviours that would otherwise be normal action patterns for dogs except that they are performed out of context (O’Heare 2007). They are used to create a break in the current situation and are indicative of a stress response. Used to increase distance between the dog and the stressful situation. The behaviours include :

  • Shaking
  • Yawning
  • Sniffing
  • Scratching
  • Looking away

Calming signals
– can be similar to displacement behaviour however displacement behaviour is directed towards the dog itself whereas calming signals are directed at the other dog or person . The behaviour may include:

  • A paw lift
  • Moving slowly
  • Sitting or lying down
  • Sneezing
  • Blinking

The signs of distress and stress are highly variable and they include:

    • Rapid, shallow panting or deep forceful panting
    • Sweaty paws
    • Stretching (may also be a displacement behaviour)
    • Penis crowning
    • Shivering
    • Stiffness (O’Heare 2007)
    • Inappropriate elimination
    • Anal sac secretions (Beaver 1999)“ With chronic stress , cortical and depletion of NA, serotonin and dopamine, take on the major role and the dog will shut down”. (O’Heare 2007)

The two main postures are offensive and defensive. Offensive is a very threatening posture communicating confidence if confronted. Dogs in this posture are preparing to attack and, will bite and/or fight if it is deemed necessary when there warning signals are not respected or understood . In this instance the weight is shifted forward to indicate a strong position. “The toes and legs are stiffened to maximise what length there is there” (Beaver 1999).A defensive posture signs of fear or submission and a posture assumed by fear biters. In this instance the body will lower and appear to be cowering and the dog will be wanting to increase it’s fight or fight distance by pulling back into it’s own space.

A dog’s tail is a fully developed body part, with nerves, blood vessels and bone going all the way through it. A dog also relies on the tail as part of communication with other dogs. Dogs with docked tails, like Dobermans tend to have some problems communicating with other dogs since the tail movements are extremely difficult to detect and they will usually compensate for this by wagging their entire rear end.

A favourite saying is that a dog is friendly if its tail is wagging, but like most simple statements, it leaves out important information. Dogs use their tails to communicate many things, friendliness as well as fear, uncertainty, and even aggression so it shouldn’t be taken for granted that it’s only a friendly dog that wags its tail.

A tail wag (depending on context) can convey many meanings including:

      • Excitement
      • Anticipation
      • Playfulness
      • Happy, self-confidence

But also:

      • Anxiety
      • Reassurance (“I’m friendly, are you?”)
      • Reconciliation (after an aggressive interaction: “I still want to be friends”)
      • Uncertainty/apprehension
      • Submissive placation

A dog will wag its tail for a person or another dog. It may also wag its tail for a cat, or other animal. But when the dog is by itself, it does not tend to wag its tail to any lifeless object. If you give him food, the dog will wag its tail to express its gratitude to you. However, if a dog walks into a room and finds a full bowl, it will approach and eat the food but with no wagging. This is an indication that tail-wagging is meant as communication or language.

Tail wagging is a completely social gesture. In some ways, it serves the same functions as a human smile. Tail movement is quite expressive. A loosely wagging tail communicates friendliness and some excitement; one held low can also be indicating fear or anxiety. Although most tail-wagging dogs have good intentions, aggressive dogs may also wag their tails. Threatening or aggressive dogs will wag their tails more rapidly at the tip and hold their tails high.

Ears come in different shapes and sizes with some types being harder to read than others. Dogs with long drooping ears present a greater challenge than dogs with prick ears, because when a pair of drooping ears lift up and forward, it’s very subtle. On the other hand, when pricked or “wolf-shaped” the movement is easier to see.

Ears pushed forward and high on the head indicate either extreme interest or extreme confidence, based on the situation.
Ears that are tilted back are indicative of worry or submission. If a dog is very worried, his ears will tend to stay back. If a dog is just trying to send the message that they’re subordinate to the person or dog they’re approaching, the ears will flick back, but then righten again after a few seconds (1)
Wolf-like dogs (such as the Samoyed or Husky) will, when content and happy, often hold their ears in a horizontal position but still forward. This has been referred to as the “wolf smile”.

Eyes can give a lot of information as to the dog’s emotional state. However it is ill advised to stare directly into a dogs eyes as this can been seen as a threat.

A dog with dilated pupils indicates significant arousal and stress which is related to the activation of it’s nervous system. (O’Heare 2007)
Whale eye occurs when the dog opens it’s eyes wide and looks to the side, such that the crescent moon shaped whites of the eye can be seen. This action allows the dog to see the threat while not confronting it. To a dog, eye contact means confidence or challenging. Therefore the last thing the fearful dog wants to do is challenge the stimulus by signalling his own confidence.
Eyes are averted to avoid confrontation. They may also be narrowed.
A direct stare signifies that the dog should it be required is more than willing to rise to a preserved challenge.

Mouth expressions can provide information about the dog’s mood. When a dog wants to be left alone, it might yawn (although yawning also might indicate sleepiness, confusion, or stress) or start licking its mouth without the presence of any food. When a dog is happy or wants to play, it might pant with lips relaxed, covering the teeth and with what sometimes appears to be a happy expression this may appear as a smile to some observers and the dog may appear to be grinning and showing his teeth this expression is only shown in relation to humans and is not used towards other dogs. This behaviour should not be confused with “snarling”, The bearing of teeth differs between fearful and confident behaviours however care should be taken regardless of the lips being drawn right back during defensive behaviours or the open mouth resembling a “C” shape in the case of offensive, as it is likely that by such time as the dog feels the need to bear it’s teeth all previous signals have been ignored therefore the only option left available is to snap/ bite.

Dogs generally try to avoid conflict; their vocalisations are part of what communicates to other dogs whether they mean harm or are in a playful mood.

These sounds vary according to the emotion to be displayed and the point the dog is trying to get across either to other dogs or to humans. Dogs bark for many reasons, such as when perceived intruders (humans, dogs, or other animals) approach its territory, for identification, when hearing an unfamiliar or unidentified noise, when seeing something that the dog doesn’t expect to be there, or when playing.

Barking also expresses different emotions for a dog, such as loneliness, fear, suspicion, stress, and pleasure. Play or excited barks are often short and sharp, such as when a dog is attempting to get a person or another dog to play.>The bark of a distressed or stressed dog is high pitched, repetitive, and atonal; it tends to get higher in pitch as the dog becomes more upset. For example, a dog left home alone and who has separation anxiety might bark in such a way.
Growls can be used to threaten and also to invite play. Growling should be given special attention because it can indicate aggression. A soft, low-pitched growl often indicates aggression; the dog may feel threatened and may be provoked to attack. An intense growl, without showing any teeth, may often indicate a playful attitude, always consider the context of a growl, and exercise caution.
Howling provides long-range communication with other dogs or owners. Howling can be used to locate another pack member, to keep strangers away, or to call the pack for hunting. Dogs howl as a sign of separation anxiety like when a dog is away from their owner or trying to find their owner in their home. Dogs also howl to say “here I am”.

Whimpering or whining sounds can be used when the dog is in pain, is excited, fearful or happy depending on the other body language displayed.

A dog may stamp it’s feet, alternating it’s left and right front legs whilst the back legs are still. This may occur if the dog is excited or wants something.
It may paw or scratch at an object it wants.
Pointers tuck one front leg up when they sense game nearby. This taken in context with other body language is a means of communication as to the direction of the prey.
A raised front leg may mean an act of submission.
Stiff legs may mean a sign of aggression.
Front legs on the ground with back legs straight and bottom in the air (play bow) the dog is trying to instigate a game.
Rear leg raised with dog laying on it’s back means total submission, urination may also occur.

Raised hackles can mean different things on different dogs and can be likened to goose bumps on humans. Some dogs raise their hackles when excited. Others do it when they’re frightened. It may also be to create the illusion of increase height in the more confident dog who is prepared to stand it’s ground.

As a general rule, even if it cannot always be predicted why a dog has his hackles raised, it is an indication of some sort of heightened emotion. (3)

The inter mandibular tufts located in the throat area usually stand out during aggressive behaviours and are folded back in submissive ones. (Beaver 1999)

Initially the selective breeding of dogs was primarily to satisfy functional requirements; however, during the mid 19th century with the interest and popularity growing in dog shows the aesthetic quality of these animals was soon to have a bearing on breeding practices (The Kennel Club, 2000). Producing animals which are morphologically far removed from their ancestors, and in doing so many breeds are no longer able to communicate as efficiently due to for example large floppy ears, or cropped ears. Docked breeds and long haired breeds as some of their visual signals have been lost due to their inability to signal or the inability of other’s to read the signals. It is also important to look at the whole body and not just one feature when the dog is trying to communicate.

Learning to recognise canine body language, as well as using them ourselves when interacting with dogs, can avoid miscommunication and help to prevent or correct behaviour problems. Simply remembering not to approach a dog head on, giving a direct stare leaning over and patting it on the head, to us as humans may seem insignificant but to the dog it is a threat and he will then be driven to react in response to the perceived threat.

When dealing with any form of aggression, whether it be pain induced, territorial, predatory or otherwise the signals may be different but when they have gone unheeded the outcome is the same, signals intensify resulting in a bite. Veterinarian advice should firstly be sought to rule out any illness or pain which may be contributing to the behaviour. Advice from a behavioural consultant should then be taken, also taking into account the breed before embarking on any behavioural modification techniques as not only is the owner/handler in danger if incorrect modification techniques are used but the behaviour could in fact worsen.

For more information on the above issues and more, visit Best Behaviour Ltd.

Courtesy of the Bull Breed Advisory Service © 2009