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I just read a book of poems with my five-year-old son that was primarily about bodily functions. So, even though it’s fresh on my mind, this post is NOT about “that” kind of talking from your body!
It’s about how your dog broadcasts, at every moment, where he or she might be along that continuum described in the previous post, Do Dogs Bite Out of the Blue?. So, unless you have a suggestion box in your home – where your dog can fill out a satisfaction survey, stamp it with a paw print and drop it in – body language is what you’ve got to go on.
Luckily, it’s all right there to see.
If you want to see it clear as day, check out Colleen Pelar’s new book, Kids and Dogs, A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families. It’s a small book with full-color photos, and you can even carry around to show your friends. I’ve mentioned Patricia McConnell’s book, For the Love of a Dog, before, and it’s a great one for really understanding what dogs are saying. See also the Doggone Safe website for a great slide show and lots more information. I love how they boiled it down to: “Pet Only Happy Dogs” and you can clearly see which dogs look happy and which do not wish to be disturbed or distracted from what they are doing.
For the quick version, see below where I matched up how particular body parts – ears, eyes, focus of attention, mouth — look different in happy dogs vs. unhappy or worried dogs. There’s also a terrific video at the end.
Before you start, though, 3 things:
- Even if a dog does appear to be happy with a small child’s attentions, I always end it after, at most, a couple of strokes. “All done! Thanks!” and it’s on to doing something else. I never rely on looking at the dog’s body language to tell me when to stop the interaction. I stop it proactively. So, it’s not enough to scrutinize the body language and say the dog looks happy so it’s OK. Remember, the child is also establishing habits (for better or worse) and is likely getting “magnetized” to the dog if you encourage a lot of contact. (See separate post to come on how children get magnetized and how to prevent it.)
- If I had to pick one thing to check with a dog, it would be the dog’s level of responsiveness. If the dog cannot easily turn and look at you happily when you say his or her name or make a friendly kissy sound, you absolutely must change the situation.
- Wagging tails and licking faces are NOT good indicators on their own of how a dog might be feeling. Happy dogs often wag tails and lick faces, but so might anxious or even overly-aroused dogs. Don’t be fooled into thinking the dog is “kissing” the baby and, thus, “loves” the baby and will know exactly how to behave around the baby forevermore. Watch this video and look past the licking to see all the other signs that the dog is NOT comfortable: ears back, stiff body posture, lip licking, head turned away, body “shake-off,” yawning, tight, closed mouth, no response to owner praise. Licking and wagging NEVER override the big picture.
Body Part Match-Up
Unhappy/Worried Dogs — have ears that are pinned or pulled back with muscle tension
Happy/Relaxed Dogs — have relaxed, natural-hanging ears or ears cocked towards you to listen
Unhappy/Worried Dogs – often have eyes open wide, showing the whites and/or “wild” eyes darting all around
Happy/Relaxed Dogs – have “squinty” eyes or what you would describe as “soft” eyes looking to make a connection with you
FOCUS OF ATTENTION
Unhappy/Worried Dogs — often look away, although worried dogs may also look to the adults for help when they aren’t enjoying a child’s attention
Happy/Relaxed Dogs — look at their people and make a connection, it’s like they’re part of the conversation
Unhappy Dogs…Oops, I mean unhappy George Clooney has a tight, closed mouth
Happy George Clooney has an open, relaxed mouth
Same with these dogs:
Finally, here is a well-done video showing happy body language, uncomfortable and worried body language and warning sign body language. There is no narration, but I usually tell people in class to consider for each dog, “Would you hesitate to reach your hand out to greet that dog?” Then, consider that many toddlers would put their FACES right up to almost every one of these dogs. Young children just don’t get it and they have no understanding of danger. Even a dog lunging and barking might make some two-year-olds laugh and a scared, hiding dog might elicit a hug from a little girl.
Don’t expect even other adults to see these warnings until you show them what to look for.
“There’s a downside to this knowledge, because now you’re going to join the hapless group of people whose hearts stop beating on a regular basis when they see a little boy across the street petting a new dog in the neighborhood, and the dog’s mouth has closed and his body has gone still and silent and the adults continue to chat on in oblivion while you wait for doom to fall, teeth to flash, and little Johnny to start screaming. Sorry. Ignorance can be bliss. But knowledge can avoid problems, so if you’re a witness to a scene like the one above, you can call Johnny over to you or try to ease the tension by calling, “Who wants to go on a walk?” You’ll also know to tell a visitor to stop petting your own dog if your dog’s mouth shuts and her body goes still. If the general public learned to look for this important warning signal, tens of thousands of bites could be avoided every year.” From For The Love of a Dog, by Patricia McConnell