The second week of April is National Dog Bite Prevention week; this year, we'll help you tackle one of the biggest causes of dog bites from familiar dogs. While some dogs bite strangers due to undersocialization or bad experiences, the majority of bites in America are from pet dogs to people they know. These biting dogs aren't malicious or out to get us; they're simply uncomfortable or scared and feel they have no option but to bite to defend themselves. By gaining a better understanding of dog body language, you can recognize early signs of fear or discomfort in your dog and help remove them from the situation before they feel forced to make a drastic choice. Listening to our dogs when they tell us they're uncomfortable and taking steps to make them feel better makes them much less likely to bite! As you handle your dog, bring them new places, or introduce them to new people or animals, watch for these subtle signs that they might be feeling uncomfortable; if you see more than one, give your dog a break and help them decompress somewhere quiet.
Dogs lick their lips when they're hungry and they see something tasty, but did you know licking their lips can be a sign of stress, too? If your dog is licking their lips without food present, especially if their tongue just does a quick swipe over their nose rather than a long lick along the length of their lips, this could be a sign that they're feeling stressed! These tongue flicks are one of the ways dogs signal their early discomfort, before they escalate to growling, baring teeth, or biting, so it's important to read that signal and get them out of that situation if possible.
We've all seen a freshly soaked dog shake off as they get out of the bath or after a swim, but a dry dog shaking off could be feeling stressed! Dogs actually shake off right after something stressful happens to them, as they're starting to recover. Think of shaking off as the "emotional reset button" - your dog was feeling stressed, but they're "shaking off" the stress, pushing through it, and starting to feel better. Shake offs are actually a great sign, because the dog is feeling better, but it's important to pay attention to what happened right before the shake off. What did your dog find so stressful that they needed a little decompression break after? If you are consistently seeing shake offs after you do something specific to your dog, or they have a certain type of interaction with another person or pet, your dog is saying that interaction really stressed them out! See if you can find a way to limit those kinds of interactions, or, if the interaction is unavoidable like a vaccine or vet exam, offer your dog some delicious snacks to help them feel better about what they must endure.
Unlike humans, dogs' irises take up the full portion of their visible eye. When you look at your dog, you shouldn't see the whites of their eyes on either side. "Whale eye" is when this isn't the case; your dog is looking at something sideways or has widened their eyes enough that you can see a half-moon of white beside their iris. Dogs with whale eye are very uncomfortable with something and may be preparing to growl, snap, or bite. Trainers often see whale eye during resource guarding behavior or uncomfortable handling. Many a "cute" photo of children hugging dogs around the neck actually show a very uncomfortable dog showing the whites of their eyes; these situations can lead to a bite if not recognized and interrupted.
Stress suppresses appetite in many animals, including dogs. If your dog is feeling worried or in danger, they are thinking about fight or flight, not settling down to a feast! If you offer your dog a treat - especially if it's one they normally love - and they turn it down, they could be feeling too upset for snacks. A dog who is too stressed to eat is too stressed to learn, so take a break if you're trying to train your dog. If you can identify what they're worried about, try moving further away and offering them their snack again. Sometimes increasing the distance between your dog and the scary thing is enough to make them feel better. If the thing they're worried about is handling, such as a vet exam or nail trim, you may need to work through a desensitization and counterconditioning protocol to help them feel okay again. A qualified, force-free trainer can help you create a plan to help your dog learn not only to tolerate these things but to love them!
Dogs, of course, yawn when they're tired, but if your well-rested pup suddenly starts yawning, it could be a sign that they're feeling stressed! These stress yawns are a clear signal that your dog is feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Dogs yawn to communicate their discomfort, to ask people or other dogs to back off and give them some space before they have to demand that space more forcefully, with a growl, snap, or bite.
These are just five of the common stress signals in dogs, but there are many more! Learning to understand what your dog is telling you is a process that can take time and practice. Just as English isn't our dogs' first language, Dog isn't ours! Check out iSpeakDog for some great pictures and explanations of common dog behaviors. Becoming fluent in dog body language will allow you to recognize when your dog is feeling stressed or overwhelmed, so you can help keep them calm, safe, and out of trouble.