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A tail wag is worth a thousand words.

By August 29, 2012 Uncategorized

This week a client came to our veterinary clinic here in Pickering with a dog they rescued. A big thank you to them for rescuing this very cute and good dog. However, there were subtle signs that the owners were not picking up that the dog was fear aggressive. Canine aggression is the most common reason for dogs being euthanized or relinquished to shelters. Therefore, this week I wanted to present some body language cues that dogs give us all the time that we may not recognize, but are important to know to keep us and our pets safe. People and dogs do not speak the same language, so understanding the behavioural basis of dog bites is an important step toward prevention.

  1. Yawning is a sign of stress. Anxious dogs will display signs such as yawning, lip-smacking, panting, big eyes and dilated pupils, pinning their ears back or turning their head to avoid eye contact. Some dogs will simply “freeze”. They are more likely to bite in this situation.
  2. A dog’s way of saying “STOP” can be rolling onto its back. If you approach a dog to interact with it and it rolls onto its back, this is the dog telling you to walk away. However, if the dog approached you and then rolled onto its back, it is looking to play. Watch body language. If the dog is stiff and tense, don’t touch it. If its relaxed and wiggling around, then play is OK.
  3. Just because the tail is wagging doesn’t mean the dog is friendly.  Dogs can wag their tail as a sign of fear, stress or from happiness and a tail-wagging dog can still bite. Watch body language again. An excitedly tail-wagging dog that greets you when you get home from work may stand completely still except for wagging its tail when approached by an unfamiliar person. You should not assume the dog is friendly in the latter situation.
  4. Dogs don’t always want to befriend strangers. When guests are meeting an unfamiliar dog, the best approach is “no touch, no talk, and no eye contact”. Let the dog approach you and even then do not assume that all is going to be OK.
  5. Let sleeping dogs lie, or resting dogs. If a dog is sleeping and then startled, it is more likely to bite defensively and quickly. What is more confusing is when your dog is awake but growls when approached or touched.  This can be referred to as “resource guarding”, the resource being the bed the dog is laying on or the couch. The dog may feel “trapped” by you approaching it, with no place to go. Put yourself in your dog’s position. I know when I’m half asleep on the couch and I get nudged and told to go to bed, I get pretty cranky myself.
  6. Do not pull, push or nudge a dog to move it. Again, if you ask a resting dog to move and it doesn’t, the automatic response is to nudge or pull the dog. The dog’s response could be to growl, snap or bite (again, I would). It is safer to use a verbal cue and better yet, to lure it with a treat. Long term success is assured using positive reinforcement  (chocolate works for me).
  7. Do not teach a dog to relinquish a possession by unexpectedly taking it away. When a dog has something in its possession and all of a sudden it is removed, it makes no sense to them. The first time they may be surprised, but they may become defensive of their belongings in the future. If you take something away, make sure you give your dog something else it is allowed to have.
  8. Always supervise your dog around young children. Never leave your dog unsupervised with children or vice versa. Bites happen quickly so it’s not enough for a parent to be nearby. If there is any distractions i.e. phone or dinner preparations, the dog should be securely separated. Baby gates are wonderful tools.

No matter how much a dog is loved, the relationship with its family will be jeopardized if the dog bites someone. Aggressive behaviour cannot be cured, but it can be minimized or sometimes prevented by following the above mentioned principles.

Again, if you have any questions don’t hesitate to talk to your veterinarian.

All the best, Dr. Fulop.


Source Article: Clinician’s Brief, May 2011.

Veterinarian Blog 2012
Amberlea Animal Hospital serving Durham, Pickering, Ajax, and Whitby, Scarborough, and the GTA