Calming signals, aggression and reading your dog’s mind.

If you are a dog owner, or are ever likely to interact with a dog, it is really important that you know how to read your dog’s body language.

In well-adjusted dogs, aggression doesn’t occur without prior warning. The dog will give signals before a bite, warning you to back off. The bite only usually occurs as a last resort, if none of the other signals are having the desired effect.

If a dog is uncomfortable with the way you’re interacting with him, at first he will give you some calming signals. These are subtle to us humans, but to dogs they are screamingly obvious. They are saying “Hey, I’m not a threat, please back off and give me some space”. Another dog may return the calming signals to say, “Hey, I’m not a threat either”. If you watch two dogs playing, you will see the calming signals being used constantly to manage the space between them.

Calming signals can include lip-licking, turning or dipping the head, and yawning. If a dog does any of these things while you are stroking him, he’s NOT comfortable with it, so stop and back off to give him some space.

My dog is very shy about being touched and I have watched her give off some screamingly obvious calming signals to our house guests before and have had to take her away from the situation for her own sake.

Kikopup (my heroine!) has produced a really good short film about calming signals, which should be compulsory viewing for all dog owners.

As you can see from the video, the calming signals work both ways. You can offer them to your dog when you want to reassure her that everything is OK. My dog is quite jumpy about noises outside the house, and if she hears something and leaps up with her ears pricked up, I give a few obvious calming signals, such as a yawn, which often prevents her escalating into ‘defending the house’ mode.

Help! I watched the video and realised that my dog doesn’t like being touched!

If after watching the calming signals video, you have had a lightbulb moment and realised that your dog isn’t comfortable with the way you touch him, don’t panic. I am in the same boat with my dog, as are many other dog owners here in Qatar, because rescue dogs in Qatar usually have an unknown history and are often nervy saluki-type dogs with that sort of temperament.

You can condition your dog to accept your touches. I have done this with my dog, just to make her tolerant of people being a bit too over-enthusiastic in petting her. But I know her well enough to know that she will never enjoy being stroked and petted, and so we don’t do that to her at home. She is comfortable lying with us on the couch for snuggles and that’s as far as we’re prepared to push her.

Kikopup comes to the rescue yet again with another informative video for conditioning your dog to accept being handled here.

What happens if you ignore the calming signals?

If calming signals are ignored, sometimes dogs will go into themselves and become very withdrawn, accepting their fate and freezing. This is what our dog does when people stroke her, and it’s not very nice to watch once you can read her signals. Dogs will especially take this approach if they find the situation very overwhelming or intimidating and don’t feel that they are in a position to defend themselves. Very sadly, this is often the state that Cesar Milan reduces his clients’ dogs to, by bullying and intimidating them. To the untrained eye, it can look like the dog is complying or submitting to you, but once you know how to read a dog’s body language, you can actually see that the dog has withdrawn into himself to try and shut out whatever is happening to him – very sad.

The other consequence of ignoring calming signals is that you are potentially setting your dog up to be aggressive in certain situations. For example, if you allow toddlers or small children to interact roughly with your dog, your dog may well tolerate it for a certain period of time. During that time, if you look closely, you may see the dog offering calming signals. If these, in the dog’s mind, are failing to work (e.g. if the play is allowed to go on for longer than it normally would, or if a new child comes onto the scene and goes for the dog in a more enthusiastic way), the dog may escalate his response to aggression.

The next step up on the aggression ladder, from calming signals, is usually a growl. The next step up, if a growl doesn’t work, is baring the teeth, and then a snap into the air, and then a bite (and then a more serious blood-drawing bite if the dog is really stressed). If the dog feels especially threatened, the ladder can be climbed in less time than it takes to blink, giving you very little time to intervene between the first teeth-baring and the eventual bite.

However, if the dog doesn’t feel like he is in grave danger, AND if a dog has learned, from positive past experiences, that a growl DOES work, then he won’t escalate his behaviour up the ladder.

This is why you should never, ever, punish your dog for growling. A dog that growls is a good thing. It gives you valuable time to intervene if the dog ever finds himself in a situation which is uncomfortable for him and the dog knows that all he has to do is growl to make the bad thing go away.

A dog that growls is not aggressive. He’s just using one of his limited communication tools to tell you something. If your dog growls at you, back off from whatever it was you were doing, and give him some space. He needs to know that growling works – that way, he won’t ever be so quick to try biting or snapping instead as a means to protect himself.

If you ever punish your dog for growling, or try to over-ride his wishes by ‘dominating him’ and persisting with whatever it was that you were doing that caused him to growl, the next time he finds himself in this situation it is more likely that he will by-pass the growling stage and lunge straight into a snap or a bite.

I speak with total humility here, as I know from bitter experience that this can happen, as I have caused our dog to snap on more than one occasion and I hope that other people can learn from my stupid mistakes.

My mistake number 1: Getting out of the car.

Whenever we come back from the beach, our dog gets hosed down on the driveway before coming back into the house, to make sure all the salt is off her skin. It never used to be a problem, until she had a skin infection and we had to start shampooing her all over, including on her oh-so-sensitive muzzle.

From this point onwards, she came to hate the hose. I tried conditioning her to it using treats, but I didn’t try hard enough because I am usually cold and exhausted after coming back from the beach and I don’t have enough hands to do everything.

It has come to the point where in recent weeks, it has taken some cajoling to get her out of the car at the end of the walk. Normally, she can be persuaded with treats, or patience. But in a fit of stupidity/anger one day, I tried to pull her out of the car by her lead. As you can imagine, this didn’t go down very well with the worried dog, and she growled at me to tell me to back off. On this particular day, I’m ashamed to admit that my patience was at an all-time low and I managed to forcibly remove her from the car by picking her up. In doing so, I accidentally taught her that ‘growling doesn’t work’ in this situation.

Since then, I’ve been more patient with her, but I hadn’t explained to my husband the full story about her new ‘getting out of the car’ issues. So when I was sick, he took her to the beach one day, and when he came back, he leaned right into the car to take her harness off in preparation for getting her out of the car for her shower. I was actually looking over his shoulder and saw the dog give off some screamingly obvious calming signals, but it didn’t really register at the time that I should say something. In the blink of an eye, she went from calming signals, to growling and snapping at him in the face (because he was leaning right into her personal space). He was pretty shaken up, so I sent him back inside the house and got the dog out myself using positive reinforcement. i.e. I had a bag of treats on me and scattered some outside the car so she came out willingly.

Since then I’ve done what I should have done all along – I’ve been encouraging her out of the car using tasty treats and saying the key words “out of the car” as she jumps out. It’s starting to work and she will now willingly jump out of the car when I say “out of the car”.

I should have done this in the first place when we started having problems. Dominating and over-riding your dog is a quick and easy fix for situations, but you will be setting yourself up for other problems. Conditioning the behaviour that you do want, using positive reinforcement, takes longer and it takes patience, but you end up with a happy and confident dog that is willing to do as you wish. You don’t have to use food – a ball-motivated spaniel or jack russell terrier would be more than happy to jump out of the car for a game of ball I am sure :) You just need to find whatever it is that motivates your dog the most.

My mistake number 2: Eye drops

A few weeks ago, our dog had a slightly runny eye. I wasn’t too concerned, until it spread to the other eye, so I took her to the vet. He didn’t seem at all concerned about it, but gave me some eye drops to help clear it up.

For the first day, we managed fine. She didn’t like having them applied, and gave me some pretty obvious calming signals as I did it, but I managed to do it so quickly that it was all over in a flash.

On the second day, I tried to put some in while she was a bit more awake and active, and that meant standing over her to try and hold her still. It didn’t work and we ended up with eye drops everywhere except in her eyes. She wasn’t at all amused by the whole situation and I gave up after 5 minutes of trying.

When my husband came home from work, I asked him to try putting the eye drops in. He stood over her as I had done earlier, and this time she knew what was coming. She growled at him, and when he ignored it she snarled and snapped the air near him.

He quickly withdrew and it was pretty apparent after that that we were now at the point where she would run away as soon as she saw the eye drop bottle.

Because we felt we were losing her trust by carrying on with this battle, we actually stopped trying to give her the eye drops after that, knowing that it wasn’t a serious eye problem anyway (and it actually cleared up by itself within 48 hours ). We had had a hard enough time earning her trust in the first place and we didn’t want to go back to square one with her.

So what went wrong? Basically, I should have spent more time when she was little preparing her for things like this. I had done a lot of conditioning with basic handling exercises, but I hadn’t pushed it as far as fiddling with her eyes. I should also have taken her calming signals on day 1 a bit more seriously and made the whole experience a lot more positive for her. We are now working on conditioning her to have her face held and eyes treated etc.

IF her eye condition had been more serious and the eye drops had been an absolute necessity, I would have had to do some pretty intense work to condition her to the presence of the bottle, and then to have her head held and then her eyes touched etc within the period of one day. The other alternative would have been to muzzle her and get on with it, but I would only have done this in an absolute emergency, as it would have set us up for immediate failure with similar situations in the future.

My mistake number 3: Possessiveness.

When our pup was very young, she found a rotting turtle bone on the beach. She ran around with it proudly and carried it into the car with her, and as I reached in to the back seat of the car to give her a drink of water, she completely caught me off guard by growling and then snapping at me because she was guarding her new bone. I was shaken by it, and because she was so little and still had the lead on her, I restrained her and took the turtle bone away.

This was, with hindsight, really stupid, as from then on, when she found a “prize” when we were out and about, she moved straight into guard mode when we even got close to her. She once bared her teeth at my husband when he innocently bent down to see what she had in her mouth.

What I should have done was get some treats out of my pocket and try and swap the turtle bone for the treats, or just have left her to it and dealt with the situation more calmly once we got back home.

I know that there are some people from the old-school of dog training still around who will think I did the right thing originally, by exerting my dominance over her and showing her that I was the boss, but actually, all I succeeded in doing was creating a dog who won’t let me near her when she has ‘contraband’ and will aggressively defend it in the process.

We have managed to work on the issue since then, by training a leave-it command in a positive way, using treats and she will now happily drop most things that she shouldn’t have (apart from edible things – we’re still working on that). But it took many weeks of training and a lot of hard work.

What to do if you have an aggressive dog.

It should be noted that ALL dogs have the potential to be aggressive. If they feel in grave danger, the progression from calming signals through to a full-on, blood-drawing bite can escalate in an instant. What you see as grave danger and what your dog sees as grave danger can be two completely different things, so if your dog feels threatened by your gardener or men with walking sticks, take it seriously and try and work on it and get to know your dog well so that you know when he might feel threatened. Keep a close eye on your dog in unfamiliar situations and around children; even the most well-meaning kids can push a dog into discomfort very quickly. Likewise, it’s really important to teach your kids how to behave around dogs from a very young age, even if you don’t have a dog.

Also, if a dog shows a sudden and unusual aggression reaction to something which may not have bothered him in the past, this can be a classic sign of bad health, so you should have a vet check him over to make sure he’s not in any pain. Dogs are very good at hiding pain for evolutionary reasons, but it can make them more grumpy and prone to snapping.

That aside, if you do feel that your dog is genuinely aggressive, because his growl instinct has been overridden in the past or if he has been physically abused or is incredibly fearful and prone to snapping/biting without warning, there are basically two options open to you. If we were not in Qatar, the first thing to do would be to call on a behaviourist, but unfortunately here in Qatar this is simply not an option. So, your choices are either to have the dog put to sleep, or manage the situations he encounters to ensure that he never gets chance to be aggressive (e.g. keeping him on a lead, muzzling him) and to try and work on his aggression through conditioning. This can be very hard to do without the support of a behaviourist, but if it means the difference between life and death for your dog (and if you can keep other people safe while you work on him), then it is definitely worth a try. There is a useful video here but you may also like to read up on Behaviour Adjustment Therapy (BAT) and consult doggy experts on forums such as dogforum.com

If you do decide that euthansia is the only option, you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it, although of course it will be an incredibly difficult decision to have to make. A dog that lives in a constant state of fear and aggression is not living a happy and fulfilled life anyway. Unfortunately here in Qatar, there are simply too many dogs in relation to the number of homes anyway and plenty of perfectly healthy dogs are put to sleep every year through no fault of their own. By putting your own dog out of his misery and constant torment, you are also acting in the best interests of people who could have ended up being bitten by him and you will also be putting yourself in a position to re-home one of the many other homeless pups in this country, should you eventually decide to try again with another dog.

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