Originally posted November 7, 2013


When a dog comes into my classroom I have a little under a second to determine if that dog is going to be safe to handle and train in the setting we are in.  If we are in a group class, I have a responsibility to my students and their dogs to make sure that everyone is safe at all times.  The way that I assess if a dog is safe to have in the classroom is to carefully observe what he is doing.  A problem that sometimes crops up is that the dogs I am seeing may be dangerous, but the people may have lived with this dangerous behaviour for so long that they don’t recognize the risk anymore.  They will tell me that the behaviour is “normal” for that dog.

Our perceptions of normal have a lot to do with what we have directly experienced ourselves.  If we grow up in a home that is nurturing and caring, we consider that to be a normal family.  If we grow up in a home where people shout and bully, then shouting and bullying is our definition of a normal family.  When we live with dogs with issues, then our normal may include behaviours that just aren’t normal.  I remember visiting one of my sisters when she had left home.  She had an elderly Labrador retriever, inherited from her then boyfriend’s mother.  Tacked to the fridge was a list of things you could not do to the dog lest the dog bite you.  On the list were things such as picking up spilled food off the kitchen floor, reaching out and touching the dog, staring at the dog, singing or laughing loudly, and dancing.  My sister’s normal revolved around avoiding getting the dog worried enough that she would bite.  Sadly, my sister did not recognize that this is not a normal way to live with a dog.

Dogs have a culture.  Many people don’t recognize their culture, and when their dog transgresses against what is normal culture, the people are surprised and often shocked when their dog gets into trouble.  Staring is not polite dog behaviour.  Neither is charging.  Or walking in a straight line directly into another dog’s space.  Or barking and lunging against a leash.  Often when a family comes in to get help for their dog, their dog is engaging in a lot of these behaviours and the results are that the dog is getting into trouble either with people or with other dogs.  The trouble they get into is varied.  The dog may be getting attacked by other dogs.  Or people may be avoiding the dog.  Or the dog may have attacked a person.  Often the dog has been signalling for a long time that he is uncomfortable and that he is going to bite, but the people who live with this dog don’t recognize the signals because their normal is not the normal that includes these signals as danger signals.  One of the toughest aspects of my job is facing a dog who is clearly telling me that he might bite, when the family has been living with the dog for a long time, and feels that the dog is safe because this is their “normal”.

The other issue they come with is when their expectations of “normal” are not safe.  When they have a dog who is dangerous at the door, and they feel that the dog is protecting the home and that protecting the home is “normal”, then they encourage a dangerous behaviour over and over again.  One of the very common behaviours that I see people doing is sitting down in public with their dog on a leash, and the dog is standing between them and the rest of the world, with a rigid posture, staring at whomever approaches.  The dog is guarding the person the way he might guard a precious bone.  The person thinks the dog is relaxed and happy but in fact the dog is engaged in a very dangerous behaviour that the person is supporting and encouraging.  The first problem with this behaviour is that the dog is treating the person not like a partner, but like a possession.  This is not the foundation of a healthy relationship.  The second part of the problem is that the dog is guarding his stuff; we have a name for this; resource guarding, and it is one of the most common reasons that dogs bite.  When you think that guarding an item from people is a normal behaviour, you don’t ask about if it is a safe behaviour.

When I ask about the signals I am seeing, often my clients will tell me that they have not seen the behaviours that I am seeing or that the dog “doesn’t really mean it”.  They tell me that this is “normal” for their dog.  I don’t think my clients are lying.  I think that their normal includes these behaviours as though they are benign.  I think that these clients have lived with the behaviours for so long that they are part of the normal of their lives.  The dog offers these behaviours so frequently, that the owners of these dogs stop seeing these behaviours as abnormal or dangerous.  What behaviours have I seen in this realm?  Growling.  Air snapping.  Sleeve grabbing.  Guarding.  Hard eye.  Staring.  Lunging.

When I first meet a dog, I have less than a second to determine if the dog is safe or dangerous.   The behaviours are “normal” but they are not safe.  One of the first and most obvious signs is growling.  Not all dogs will growl, but if a dog growls when I first meet him, I pay attention.  Growling is a signal that tells me that the dog is about to bite.  It is an auditory signal and it is pretty hard wired into the dog; they don’t fake it.  If the dog is growling, I back off.  I take whatever pressure that is on the dog off the dog, and make things calmer.  This may help to prevent a bite.  When I work with clients who are upset about growling, the first thing I do is teach them the R and R Method of dealing with Growling, which is outlined here:  Growling is actually part of a bite sequence.  The bite sequence is Orient, Freeze, Growl, Lunge, Bite.  If you are lucky you have a dog who will growl for a long, long time before lunging and biting.  During the orienting and freezing phase, you are going to see a lot of body language that tells you what is coming next.  Here are some faces I see in class with comments on what they are telling me.

This dog has his lips pulled forward and tight and his tongue is far back in his mouth so that if he bites, he won’t bite himself.  This dog actually means business in my opinion.  His ears are pulled tightly back, and he looks tense and worried.  This may be his normal and this may be something that the owner sees every day.  The owner may even feel that her dog is “safe” because her dog does this so often.   Even if I am wrong, I would not reach for this dog because I will always believe the dog and err on the side of caution.  Image credit: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

When the sort of dog shown above shows up at class, and he does from time to time, he is telling me not to touch him.  Specifically, he is telling me that he is ready to bite because he has pulled his tongue back, and pulled his lips forward so that he won’t bite his own mouth if he needs to do his teeth.  His ears are also pulled tightly back against his head, telling me that he is really uncomfortable.  I look at the distance from the corner of the eye to the corner of the ear to tell me if he is holding his ears tightly against his head because sometimes the shape of the ear can be misleading.

Here is a better image of the distance between the corner of the eye and the ear.  Notice that this lab has his ear pulled right back as far as he can pull it away from his eye.

 Copy of zd
This dog is showing us both the round eye typical of a distressed dog and the ears pulled as far back as possible from the eye.  Don’t reach for this dog.  He isn’t deceiving us with his facial expression.  He is uncomfortable and upset.

Hard eye is the term we use to describe the hard rounded eye of the intense dog who is glaring directly at you.  This dog is extremely dangerous and likely to bite.  He is not happy and relaxed.  One of the things that characterizes this eye is the dilation of the pupil.  This doesn’t come alone though; when the dog’s eye is hard, he also has his ears pulled back so that the skin between the eye and the ear is taut.  I will never reach in to give a treat to these dogs because they are clearly telling me to stay away.

This little dog is clear in her message; I am not happy or comfortable, and I am going to bite if you reach in towards me.  Notice how dilated her pupils are; I can fix green eye in my pictures, but often this clue in an image helps me to better notice how big the dog’s pupils are.  Another clue that this dog is uncertain is her right paw-she has lifted it and dogs often do this when they are uncertain.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Here is a dog who is relaxed but orienting on something.  He is relaxed but alert, and he could become aroused and tense very quickly.  When a dog is orienting on a variety of things, he is hypervigilant, and hypervigilant dogs live in a very tough world; everything that they hear or see is a potential threat, and they get stuck in a cycle of looking for threats until eventually they find one and their concerns are reinforced by the stimulus that frightens them.  Orienting is a normal, common behaviour, and as long as the dog isn’t orienting on everything, I don’t worry too much.  This dog is alert, but relaxed so this is a dog I would reach in to and say hello. If he walked into my classroom and was orienting on a wide variety of things, I would not consider him safe though.  He likely wouldn’t have the softer facial features that this dog does if he were hypervigilant.

Orienting is the first step in the sequence that leads to a bite, but it doesn’t mean that the dog will follow along to the end of that sequence.  Often dogs will orient when they hear something or something catches their eye and then they will relax again.

It is important to understand that the dog I see in my classroom may well be very relaxed and safe in other situations.  He may well be relaxed and easy going out in the park, but I am not in charge of what happens in the park.  I am only in charge of what happens in my classroom.  I have to make quick decisions about the safety of the animals in my classroom, and looking at still images helps me to practice my skills of isolating specific behaviours to consider when I am making that decision.  I am always going to decide who comes in my class and who does not based on what I see the dog telling me.  If the dog is telling me that he is safe and relaxed, I will listen to that.  If the dog is telling me that he is tense, guarding or frightened, I am not going to disregard what he has to say.  I am going to keep people and their dogs safe in my classroom.


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