Here's one of those tricky nuances of behavior. Many people assume that a dog that isn't displaying aggressive behavior is safe to pet, introduce to their dog, take to the dog park, etc.
Aggressive displays - barking, growling, snarling, snapping - are all a dog's final attempt to put distance between them and the dog or person before resorting to an actual bite or fight and, since most humans have not learned how to read canine body language, that tends to be the first thing we see.
But there are numerous warning signs long before we see aggressive displays.
Aggression is a dog's response to stress. The greater the stress the dog is experiencing, the closer they are to biting or fighting. Because all dogs are unique individuals, they all vary in the amount of stress they can tolerate, how they choose to relieve that stress, and how many warning signs they give before biting or fighting.
Here's a look at some of the more common stress signals:
Now, trying to remember all of those when interacting with a dog can be tough, especially if you've just learned to recognize them. So, here's a quick tip:
A lack of friendly behavior IS a warning sign.
If a dog wants to interact with you, if he or she is just dying to have you pet them, they are NOT subtle. They lean up against you, they paw at you, they even shove their muzzle under your hand.
If a dog is not giving you those obvious signals, you might not want to reach out to pet them just yet.
Follow these simple rules when meeting a new dog:
1. Always wait for the dog to approach you. Even when I spot a dog in public and I ask the owner if I can greet the dog, I never walk up to the dog. Instead, I kneel down, turn my body slightly sideways, and talk to the dog. Sometimes, they run right up to say hello. Sometimes they don't. Which brings us to #2:
2. Always respect a dog's choice not to approach. Trust me, you won't die of a broken heart if you don't pet that dog. But you might end up with broken skin if you try to pet a dog who isn't into you.
3. If the dog seems like he's ready to be pet, but moves away when you reach for him, stop. He might want to sniff you or maybe even sit for a treat, but some dogs are old-fashioned and would prefer to wait for the second or third date before getting physical.
One thing to keep in mind is that these rules aren't just for your safety, but the dog's comfort. If a dog is routinely subjected to rude behavior by strangers, what do you think he's going to learn about strangers over time? They're rude and they don't listen to anything but the most obvious signals, including growling, snarling, and snapping. If you love dogs, help make the world a more comfortable place for them to be.
My practice is limited to fear and aggression, so I walk into the homes of dogs who have already threatened or bitten people. I'm able to make friends with many of these dogs very quickly - mostly because I don't try to pet them and just focus on our lessons.
We're like friendly co-workers who enjoy each other's company, even heading to happy hour once in a while, but we don't hug and kiss.
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