Our canine friends generally give us quite a few warning signs – through their body language and behaviour – when they find a situation stressful, uncomfortable, or unsafe. It is often when we fail to recognize these signs that situations escalate into growling, snapping, and biting.
By staying aware of what our dogs are telling us, there is a lot we can do to mitigate these situations before they reach this point. Depending on the circumstances, we might need to remove them from the situation, change our behaviour, or simply give them more space. By taking these actions, we can often create room for a more positive, lower-stress outcome.
Read on to learn how to spot some key canine ‘STOP’ and ‘GO’ signs!
|| Displacement Behaviours ||
Displacement behaviours are ‘normal’ dog behaviours that are happening out of context – for reasons other than those that would usually prompt the behaviour. These reasons are often because a dog is stressed or anxious, and engaging in this ‘displacement’ activity is their response to this experience of conflict. The below infographic highlights some key displacement behaviours often seen in dogs who are becoming uncomfortable in a situation – actions like yawning, lip-licking, scratching or biting at their body, sudden sniffing the ground, or a big ‘wet-dog’ shake.
If you notice your dog taking any of these actions, tune in! This is a good signal that something in their current environment is making them uncomfortable. Is there a lot of erratic noise nearby? Is someone too close, or touching them in a way they don’t appreciate? Are they unable to move to a location of their choosing? Check in, and see what you can do to help alleviate the source of conflict.
|| Anxious Behaviours ||
A step further along the stress scale, anxious behaviours are actions and body language that indicate a dog is quite uncomfortable in their current situation. This anxiety can display as either ‘higher energy’ or ‘lower energy’ than their typical demeanour – a dog might stand with their tail set low with only the end wagging, or tuck their tail right between their legs. Their ears might be set sideways on their head, or be set quite far back and accompanied by quick panting. They might pace or circle, or be unable to settle.
|| Avoidance Behaviours ||
Avoidance behaviours, like their name implies, are actions a dog is taking to distance themselves from the source of their distress – whether or not they may be able to physically remove themselves from the situation. If they are not able to simply get up and leave, they may respond by turning their head away, hiding behind a person or an object, rolling over in a submissive manner, or barking and attempting to retreat.
These behaviours are especially important to pay attention to. Often in these cases (perhaps if the environment is busy, or the person interacting with the dog is unfamiliar with these ‘stop signs’), they may try to force the dog back into the interaction – drawing their head back around, pulling them out from their hiding spot, or blocking their retreat. Instead, this is our opportunity to respect the signals the dog is sending, and give them the space and autonomy they are asking for.
|| Receptive Behaviours ||
In contrast to these ‘stop sign’ behaviours, it’s also important to be aware of the ‘go-ahead’ signals dogs offer when they are feeling relaxed and comfy. By keeping an eye out for this body language, we can be assured that they continue to be comfortable with their environment and the goings-on around them.
A receptive dog might have a loose ‘wiggly’ body and tail, showing that they’re not holding undue tension in their body. Their expression will also be relaxed and soft – even when they’re keeping a sharp eye out for treats, for example, you won’t see the half-moon whites of their eyes or the tense corners of their mouth that tend to appear when they are less at ease. Their tail could wag or thump on the floor, and they might play ‘bow’ by lowering their front end down with their rear up high. These are all strong indications of a dog that is relaxed and at ease.
|| Watching for ‘STOP’ and ‘GO’ ||
If we’re not paying attention, sometimes a snap or bite can seem to come out of the blue. But if we remain tuned-in to the signals dogs are sending through their body language and behaviour, we have many opportunities to alleviate stressful or uncomfortable situations before they escalate. These ‘stop’ and ‘go’ signals are especially important to teach to younger members of the household, so that they learn to recognize and respect the messages their canine friend is sending before a situation becomes dangerous.