By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT
Most dog owners know about the physical language of dogs; a raised tail and ears mean dominance, while a lowered tail and ears means submission. However, few know about the emotional language dogs’ exhibit. Physical language presented as appeasement and avoidance signals make up the ethogram, or canine dictionary. This dictionary must be understood in order to develop a secure relationship with the dog, which in turn will reduce the risks of bites.
Appeasement and avoidance signals are intended for those purposes. Appeasement signals serve to minimize conflict, while avoidance signals are intended at avoiding conflict in the first place. Appeasement signals like stretching, yawning, tongue flicking, pawing, and such, are displayed to the opponent (human, dog or other) in order to avoid stop conflicts before they escalate. Avoidance signals are displayed at an opponent when a dog tries to avoid a conflict. He signals his intentions, turning eyes, turning head, curving, sitting, pretend sniffing, hoping to avoid the escalating conflict.
Aggression in dogs is normal; after all they are predators. It is the lack of understanding that puts people in jeopardy. Owners punish the puppy for showing his teeth at grandmother; they tell him “No” when he growls. For the dog, these are normal signs of distress and people punish them out, leaving the dog with no other option but to bite. Remember freeze, flight or fight! Given the right circumstances, the dog will bite, no questions asked.
Pausing (freeze) behaviour shows the dog is uncomfortable, stress is building up and he must make a decision “Should I stay, or run away? ” In most cases the dog will run away (flight), however, when the environment prevents him from escaping, biting (fight) becomes an option, actually, the only option left!
Here is an example. A dog is playing on the balcony with his favourite toy. The neighbour walks in the yard. The dog pauses, tongue flicks, stands, circles and lies down again. The Neighbour interprets this as the dog being ok (he laid down again). He walks up the stairs and the dog bites his leg as he passes by. The dog gave all the right signals, unfortunately, the person failed to recognize them, and got bitten. Look at the situation from the dog’s point of view. When the person entered the yard, the dog paused (decision-making), tongue flicked (calming signal), circled (curving = 1st avoidance signal) and laid back down (down = 2nd avoidance signal). After reading this information, one can see the situation was preventable.
Through artificial selection, humans have changed the dogs' fixed action patterns (chain of behaviours working towards a specific goal), breeding down certain traits their wild ancestors still exhibit. Such behavioural faults are killed, dismember and eat. One must understand that these genetic traits are not removed, they are simply dormant. Dogs retain their predatory behaviours and under the right conditions, genetics will always over-ride training.
Physically speaking, the consequences of dog bites are different, the size of the dog being the main factor. However, emotionally speaking, the result is the same. Dogs are euthanized and victims are scarred for life. To avoid dog bites, prevention through education remains the best option.