The Right Approach

Sometimes the difference between an aggressive dog and an accepting dog is the behavior of the human.  Many dogs do not manifest fear in ways that we expect, and we need to pay attention to our body language and theirs in order to make the greeting successful.

Killian in his wheelsThis is Killian.  He’s cute, isn’t he?  I’m crazy about him, and he is crazy about me.  He was not always so sure of me.  There was a time when he growled – A LOT. It took time to earn his trust, but it was worth it. He’s a fun little guy. But he needs a minute to get used to people before they swoop down on him, and he absolutely does not want you in his face, nor does he want a hug from a stranger. He isn’t a bad dog.  He just needs time to figure you out.

Killian 005This is Killian the day he came to live with me.  He had just lost the use of his back legs, traveled 250 miles with a stranger, and endured being poked by two different veterinarians. Killian’s paralysis means that I only have the front half of the dog to give me clues as to his mood. But on this day I didn’t need anything more. His unease shows in his eyes. They tell me he feels anything but secure as I take this picture. These are eyes you need to watch for when approaching, or even more critically, allowing your child to approach, any dog.  Yes, even YOUR dog.

A google search of kids and dogs brings up a plethora of photos that make dog trainers really uncomfortable. Remember Killian’s eyes warning me that he was not okay with what was going on?  Check these out…

dog and babyDo you see it?dog and baby

ATT00004What about this one?ATT00004

dog tongue flick and crescent eyes while being huggedThis dog is really stressed out.  He’s not only saying it with his eyes, he is doing what we call a “tongue flick”.  Absent food, this is not a good sign. We can only hope that this dog is a typical beagle, and can take a lot before becoming aggressive. Unfortunately, in situations like this, if the dog has given all the signs it is stressed and receives no relief from the situation, a bite can occur.  An onlooker might say the dog bite was unprovoked, and that the dog gave no warning. Unfortunately the dog IS giving warning, but his warnings are going unheeded.

Here’s another tongue flick. The dog is telling us he is uncomfortable.baby hugging dog tongue flick

Approaching a dog in the correct way can relieve tension and allow the dog to relax.  Because bites are most often the result of fear or stress, whatever we can do to not be threatening or cause the dog stress should be our approach. Here are some ways you can tell the dog that you can be trusted.

1) Don’t look him in the eye. Approach from the side. Don’t come straight at him.  Avert your gaze and let him get to know you.  Eye contact in the dog world is threatening.  Don’t do it.

2) Don’t approach him from above, and don’t lean over him. If you offer a hand, offer it from below so he can sniff it. I don’t know anyone who likes a pat on the head.  Most dogs don’t like it much. Having someone tower or hover over you is uncomfortable for anyone, and if your intentions are not clear to the dog, it can be very threatening.

3) Don’t hug the dog. If he knows you, he may recognize it as benign and even learn to enjoy it, but that takes time and a good relationship.

4) Keep your posture back.  Dogs that are on offense have a forward posture.  Dogs that mean no harm keep their posture back. Lean back on one foot or lean back in your chair.

When approaching a strange dog, always ask the owner before getting too close.  Listen to them even if the dog looks harmless.  Even if the dog is small and cute and in a wheel chair.

If you see the above signs in your own dog, rethink what you are doing. Also watch for yawns, panting when it isn’t hot out, refusal to look in your direction, and becoming frozen like a statue.  All of these are signs of stress.  Give your dog some space.  He really doesn’t want to bite. And he is telling you how he feels.  Please, for his sake and yours, listen.

About Dawn Sims

I have been a Certified Professional Dog Trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). I am also a freelance writer for dog related publications. I have been training dogs since 1997, promoting force-free, science based training methods, instructing group classes and providing private in-home dog training. I have worked extensively with dogs with behavioral issues, including those suffering from anxiety, aggression and other stress related disorders. I have dedicates much of my free time to rehabilitating and re-homing shelter dogs with a variety of rescue organizations. As part of my passion for advocating science based dog training methods, I have had the privilege to lecture at Virginia Tech’s School of Veterinary Medicine. In 2014 I returned to Arkansas after 12 years in rural North Carolina, where Happy Hound Pet Services began in 2007. I live in Rudy, Arkansas, with my husband, eight dogs and occasional foster dogs.
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