Several times a week I see videos on my social media feeds of dogs and kids interacting together. Kids climbing and bouncing on dogs, toddlers hugging them, and in one, a couple of youngsters shoving a hamster into their dog’s face and laughing at the dog’s reaction. The videos were no doubt posted by parents who found them cute and entertaining and I’m sure they weren’t deliberately trying to harm or traumatize their dogs. However, the videos illustrate the difficulty most pet dog owners have in reading signs of stress or anxiety in dogs, and this is critical to avoiding interactions which may lead to a dog behaving aggressively or even biting.
We’re all good at knowing if our dog is happy. The mouth is relaxed and may be open, the eyes are soft, and the ears are in a neutral position. The body is relaxed and may be wiggly and the tail wags are wide and low. And most people can identify a frightened dog; the tail (if there is one) is tucked, cowering body, head down or looking away, or the dog may be trying to flee.
Dogs also offer other signals to express a variety of emotions or intentions, particularly when stressed, unsure or anxious, and these are the ones that people often miss or misread.
Appeasement signals are meant to cut off a perceived threat from another individual, as a means of keeping peace in social situations. It’s the dog’s way of saying, “I’m not a threat.” They’re used when greeting and interacting with other dogs and with humans too. Typical appeasement signals are avoiding direct eye contact, turning the head away, a crouching body position, a low or tucked tail (may be wagging some), ears pulled back or raising a front paw slightly off the ground. Some dogs will roll over to expose their inguinal area, and others will lick their lips, or lick at the muzzle of the other dog.
Some of these signals are often misinterpreted by humans as a sign of a dog’s guilt. The assumption is the dog has done something it “knows” is wrong and is expressing remorse when confronted by his human. A recent study dispelled that myth. See my previous article on Guilty Looking Dogs.
Displacement behaviors happen when a dog is conflicted about what to do next. They are akin to a human scratching their head while contemplating a decision. They’re normal behaviors, including yawning, lip licking, sniffing and scratching, but are performed out of context. For example, a dog who sees a novel object and is curious but unsure about approaching it, may lip lick as an indication of conflicting motivation.
A dog feeling stress or anxiety can display a variety of signals in addition to appeasement and displacement behaviors, including panting when they’re not hot, pacing, hypervigilance and refusal to take food. It’s important to look at the context in conjunction with the overall body language to determine whether the dog is anxious.
The next time you see a cute dog video on social media, try watching it with the sound off and just look at the dog. What body language signals do you see? Take the time to observe your own dog in various contexts so you can understand when he might be stressed or anxious so you can intervene to keep him comfortable and safe.