It is extremely important to become familiar with your dog’s expressions so that you may be more in tune to what a dog it trying to tell you, and even more important when there are children. They must be taught how to approach a strange dog and how to interact appropriately with the family dog.
Dog lovers of all ages need to be keenly aware of dog body language and facial signals. So very often, after a dog bite situation, a person will say it came out of the blue with no warning. There WAS a warning, the humans in the equation simply did not know what they were seeing.
Concentrating on a dog’s expression, especially facial expression, we can learn so much about what a dog may be feeling. Dogs usually experience stress when a person “gets in their face”. Dogs feel threatened when a person leans over them or reaches over the top of their heads. They also do not enjoy being hugged. Did you know that only some creatures such as humans and primates actually hug? Have you ever seen a dog hugging another dog around the neck?
There are some specific signals to watch for when studying a dog’s expression. If they have an open mouth they are typically at ease. When the mouth closes, you are too close. Other signs may be squinty eyes, turning away, breathing changes, or yawning.
With your own family dog you may notice the dog displaying an uncomfortable expression. Thankfully, most dogs tolerate the intrusion, but why would you want your dog to feel uneasy about his/her own family members? More importantly, why would you want to push your dog over the threshold where he may feel it necessary to bite? The sequence would be:
1. Tolerance with obvious signs
2. Growling which is a warning to back away
3. Bite to make you back away
Many dogs have a bite history simply because they were pushed too far and because the owners didn’t know how to read the dog’s expression. Don’t assume that because hugging is a normal human behavior, that it is natural for a dog. Many family photos of children hugging or holding their family dog will show a dog that is painfully uneasy about the interaction and simply trying to tolerate the moment, hoping it will soon pass.
If you would like to like to read an easy primer on this topic, I would highly recommend Kids and Dogs by Colleen Pelar. It is packed with lots of color photos to aid the entire family toward a better understanding of their dog’s emotions. In the dog training world Colleen is the expert on this subject. Her most resent presentation was at the Association of Professional Dog Trainers annual conference last week where she taught a seminar to trainers like myself.