At the other end of my leash was Belle, one of our rescues awaiting adoption. Belle was curious but relaxed when she saw the other dog. Because I wanted to test her reaction to strange dogs, I let the other dog approach.
In previous columns, I explained why and how some dogs, specifically, DINOS (Dogs In Need Of Space), have a tendency to respond with fearful or reactive behavior when a dog or person invades its personal comfort zone. These aren’t mean dogs. They are just trying to tell people or dogs that they need some space, a slower introduction, a gentler interaction. Not able to verbalize, they communicate through behaviors.
In the next two columns I’ll describe the physical body cues we can use to know what the dog is thinking and feeling. Dogs speak to us but in their own language. Being experienced at interpreting these physical cues gives us a chance to positively affect a DINOS’s behavior and emotions.
Become an expert at reading the cues
When I interact with a dog, my mind alternates between watching the entire dog and parts of his body. Of course everyone living with a dog does this. However with a new dog or a familiar dog in a new situation, I am more apt to focus on the most communicative and informative parts of the body. Harmony and safety depend on my skill in doing so.
Parts of the Body that Speak Loudest
Just like humans the face of the dog carries the most weight when deciding what part of the dog I first watch for information. Most of my focus will be on the muzzle, whiskers and teeth. The eyes are a source of information as well, but they are harder to see as I may be behind the dog or there may be hair over the face.
Zeroing in on the muzzle gives us a slight edge on staying safe. As a dog begins to load, in other words, starts to emotionally respond, he may close his mouth and go very still. Watch for a flick forward of a whisker or an ever so slight forward or backward wrinkle of the lip or on top of the muzzle.
I said, “Stop!”
I don’t wait to see teeth or hear a growl to know the dog is telling me something. When I see stillness, a flick of a whisker or the lip wrinkle, I get the message... Stop!
People are often surprised when a dog snaps. It’s rare that there is no warning. It is more likely that you missed it and intruded into its space. Noticing the cues early on is the trick to staying safe.
Giving a DINOS a secure and enjoyable experience comes at the stage when you sense the possibility, not after he has been stressed.
Obviously there is a risk here of simplifying the explanation of a very complex set of physical cues and intentions. The context is important, as well as the need to look at other parts of the dog to correctly interpret the behaviors. But I have no doubt that when we see and can understand what the cues are telling us, a DINOS will certainly thank you when you understand his language and respond to the message.
In the next column I’ll introduce more useful facial cues, as well as look at other parts of the body. Oh yes, and I’ll share Belle’s final dog-to-dog encounter.
Augusta Farley raises, trains and competes with Belgian Malinois dogs and runs Best Friends Pet Resort & Canine Academy in Patterson. She also hosts a Patterson-based nonprofit dog shelter, Westside Animals for Adoption, on her property.