By Doug Duncan, Portland, OR Dog Walking Academy instructor and owner of Doggy Business
As dog walkers, we gather our dogs together for fun adventures every day. Most of the time the dogs look forward to these daily outings, though conflicts do occur from time to time. Conflict between dogs is normal, just like conflict between people, but just as with people, too much can lead to unnecessary stress. When we take the time to understand how dogs communicate we can learn to distinguish appropriate dog interactions from aggressive responses that have gone too far. We can also recognize when a dog in our care has become frightened or worried, and is in need of some extra assistance. Careful observation allows us to intervene at the right time to avoid any unnecessary conflict. Doing so means happier dogs. Happier dogs mean more fun on the trails for everyone, and a safer and more enjoyable daily adventure.
Behavior has a purpose. Dogs use their behavior to alter outcomes as they negotiate the environments they live in. Basically, dogs use their behavior to gain access to the kinds of things they like, to stop things they don’t like from happening, or to make things they don’t like go away. Think about what your favorite dog does when he sees you every day. How does he behave? When I get home from work, my dog greets me with a relaxed face, an open mouth, ears back slightly, head bobbing from side to side, and his entire back end wagging profusely. I smile when I see that, every time. Why? Because he is telling me he wants to interact with me, and I love that. Dogs use play bows, bouncy lateral movements, exaggerated gaits, and a relaxed open mouth (called play face) when they want to interact with another dog or person. Behavior professionals call this affiliative behavior. These behaviors indicate a desire to close distance and to interact in a friendly way.
When you are out on the trail with the dogs in your care, you can read how they respond to the things around them by watching their body language. When you encounter other dogs when out and about, for example, do your dogs behave as though they might want to interact with these other dogs, or are they showing signs that they’d rather not have to deal with such greetings? Are their bodies loose and relaxed? Are their mouths open and relaxed, with ears at attention? Do they lower themselves down into a play bow or bounce from side to side when confronted by other dogs? If so, they are probably interested in saying “hi,” and maybe even playing. Though we don’t recommend allowing client dogs to greet dogs you don’t know if it can be avoided, these body language signals let you know that pass-bys should go smoothly.
Making Things Stop or Go Away
When dogs are uncomfortable they use their behavior to communicate that, too. Think of a time when you noticed a dog growling at another dog. Maybe that dog didn’t want to share space with the other dog. How did he communicate that? What else did you notice along with the growling? Maybe you saw him raise his head and shift his weight forward to appear taller than normal. Uncomfortable dogs might also retract their lips to expose their teeth in a gesture called an agonistic pucker. Some dogs will snap and lunge at another dog to make him move farther away. We sometimes refer to these behaviors as distance-increasing behaviors because that’s the desired outcome for the dogs exhibiting them. Behavior professionals also refer to these behaviors as agonistic. Agonistic behaviors are used when a dog wants something in his environment to stop happening or when he wants to cause another dog or person to move away. Remember, a lot of dog body language is about negotiating space. When you see dogs in your care using these behaviors you can change the situation by helping the dogs increase distance between themselves.
Consider the following scenario: You are hiking down the trail and you see a group of dogs coming closer. One of these dogs runs up to your group and greets one of your dogs. You notice your dog assume a taller stance with his ears up and his weight slightly forward toward the dog who ran up. This other dog then pulls her lips up, exposing her teeth, and emits a growl. We may not know the initial intentions of the dog who ran up, but we do know that at this stage these dogs are in conflict. Confrontations like this are extremely common among dogs. When something is bothering them, they don’t have the ability to ask for some form of relief the way we do — unless you count that growl! They use their bodies to communicate.
The two dogs described above are feeling threatened by the pressure of greeting. How could you alleviate some of that pressure? What if we could move one of the dogs away? If you could call the dog in your group to you, that would take the pressure off of the other dog, likely causing her to feel better and thus resolving the conflict. A simple head turn away from that other dog could help just as much. If you are still working on this dog’s recall skills, you could use a food lure to move the dog’s head away from the other dog’s face. I’ve found that this simple move often takes the pressure off of the other dog very quickly, and it is not uncommon to see the other dog move to the butt to investigate once this pressure has been removed. Once the tension has passed, you can move off and be on your way.
One final note about agonistic behavior: Aggression between dogs very rarely involves a full-on attack where serious injuries occur. The vast majority of the time, aggressive responses between dogs are ritualistic. Ritualized responses are ways that dogs use their behavior to communicate with each other. Ritualized aggressive responses are forms of communication used to negotiate space and access to resources. When we remember that these responses are forms of communication and not intentions to do harm, we can maintain a level head and help to resolve the conflict by moving the dogs away from each other.
Dealing with Stress
There are other signals that indicate stress and discomfort in response to the things going on around a dog. Appeasement signals, for example, are some of my favorite signals because they frequently happen before more obvious signs of discomfort occur. If we notice these early signs of discomfort, we often have time to change the situation before things escalate. Appeasement signals include things like tongue-flicking, lip-licking, and turning the head away from another dog. Some dogs will lower their entire bodies to the ground and roll over, exposing their bellies. Sometimes called cut-off signals, these communication signals function to avoid or escape negative interactions.
It is very common to see signs of fear and stress together with appeasement signals. When dogs are fearful or stressed, they pull their ears back tight to their heads and often tuck their tails. Many lower their heads, or even their entire bodies, toward the ground. Stressed dogs may also pant and pace, and their pupils may become dilated. One of the best indicators of fear and stress is avoidance. Dogs avoid things that frighten them. For dog walkers, fear may cause a dog to pull away from a frightening stimulus. The best way to help a fearful dog is to move away from the things in the environment that are causing the fearful responses. This will help the dog recover faster, and will help prevent any unnecessary prolonged stress response.
Imagine that you’re adding a new dog into your group. You think this new dog will be a great addition to your crew. On that first walk together, you notice this new fellow exhibiting appeasement signals. When he is confronted with a new dog, he pulls his ears back and lowers his body closer to the ground. You notice that he licks at the other dog’s mouth during greetings and turns his head away when dogs come up to him. This dog is experiencing some social pressure and is showing signs of stress. How could we help this dog? If we don’t intervene, he might become so stressed that he starts to use aggressive responses to deal with the social pressure he is experiencing during these greetings.
As in the previous example, adding in some space between these dogs would really help with the stress our new boy is experiencing. We could call the other dogs away from him and ask them all to sit (reinforcing those sits, of course). Adding the sit can help prevent them from returning to the stressed dog. If the dogs do return to our new dog, we can simply call them away again, defusing the tension. Moving down the trail in this fashion, we are assisting our new addition by managing the pressure he is experiencing. By taking the pressure off of him, he’s more able to enjoy the outing and is far more likely to end up getting along with the new group of dogs.
Displacement behaviors are another indication of stress in dogs and are quite common during greetings. Have you ever noticed a dog shaking off, as if she were trying to shed water from her fur, right after greeting a new dog? That is very likely a displacement behavior, which functions to relieve stress. Normally, a shake-off is performed when a dog is wet. Its function is to shed the body of unwanted water. When the water is shed off the dog’s body, the dog feels better and is therefore reinforced for shaking off. Under stress, a dog can perform this same behavior to gain access to that same feeling of relief.
Other common displacement behaviors include sniffing the ground, stretching, scratching oneself, drinking water, and eliminating. It is interesting that all of these behaviors are associated with reinforcement in the form of relief. When performed in a situation where the behavior is functional, they satisfy a need. Using these behaviors during stressful encounters, like greeting another dog, helps dogs process stress in ways that are nonthreatening to the other dog. Displacement behaviors help dogs avoid conflict.
One of my favorite examples of displacement behaviors in dogs is urination right after a greeting. Have you ever noticed how some dogs will move away from the dog they just had a face-to-face greeting with only to urinate on the closest vertical surface or stretch of ground? Then, the dog they were greeting goes over to smell the urine, while the urinator walks off? Fascinating! Though I’ve never seen any research on this, it looks as though the dog deposits urine as a lure to preoccupy the other dog while he moves away to defuse a stressful encounter. When you watch dogs closely, you will start to see how they use their bodies to communicate and negotiate their surroundings.
Happy Tails, Happy Trails
Dogs are always communicating. They use hundreds of different signals in many different combinations to communicate with each other and with us. Since they cannot talk to us using words, we have to learn their language by studying how they use their bodies to communicate their feelings and their needs. Once we become proficient at reading these signs, we can intervene to help the dogs in our care avoid unnecessary conflict with each other and with people. By doing so we keep them safer and help them best enjoy their outdoor adventures.