Dogs are social creatures and although they don’t have a spoken language, they have a wealth of subtle cues that they use to communicate with.
As humans most people are aware of the extremes; ears forward and wagging tail = happy, teeth showing and growling = angry, but are blissfully unaware of the points in between! This is nobodies fault, but if you start looking out for the more subtle signs then you’ll be amazed at what you pick up on.
In this picture of me and my dog Nutmeg, you can see that her ears are back and she is trying to lick my face. She is showing signs of being mildly anxious and confused as to what I want from her – having our photos taken is not part of our normal daily routine! Licking faces is a form of appeasement, you often see it in puppies licking older dogs’ faces. In this situation we had been outside trying to get some reasonable photographs and she didn’t know what I wanted her to do! She was starting to feel stressed and it was time to stop taking photos.
There has been a useful schematic put together to illustrate what is called “The ladder of aggression”. It shows the different behaviours that a dog will show when they are stressed, starting from behaviours that are intended to diffuse a situation where they only feel mildly anxious, up to overtly aggressive behaviours such as biting.
The behaviours higher up the ladder (biting, snapping and growling) are obvious enough for us to pick up on, but what we want to do is to realise how stressed a dog is feeling before they have to resort to these. A dog showing these behaviours is the equivalent of us yelling “PLEASE MAKE THIS SITUATION STOP!!”, and often before they reach that point they will have been exhibiting the signs lower down, but they just haven’t been “heard”.
Starting at the bottom of the ladder, a sign such as yawning (when you wouldn’t expect them to be particularly tired) is very easy to miss, as is frequent blinking. Turning their head away is another subtle sign, but one often seen when dogs are having an over-enthusiastic hug from a child for example.
Getting up into the red zone, one of the last signals that a dog will show before resorting to obvious aggression is to stiffen up, or freeze. This is again easy to miss because it appears so passive, but if you notice it in a dog, often coupled with staring eyes (often the whites of their eyes will be visible around the edges) then this is a signal that the dog is extremely stressed and that something needs to change to prevent an escalation.
In some situations, such as between aggressive dogs for example, they will go through these stages in only seconds. Other dogs may stop showing the subtle signs of stress at all, if they have found over time that it is never noticed, and jump straight up the ladder.
In most cases though, by just being more aware of what to look out for, you can pick up on when your dog is feeling a bit uncomfortable in a situation and so do something about it.
This is especially important when dogs are around children, whether you feel your dog is used to them or not. Some dogs are stressed even though they will tolerate a lot, and it is through their self control that any escalation is prevented.
Nutmeg is probably not super-model material, but she is a good communicator!