Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Introducing Yourself: Observe First, Ask Questions Later

While there has recently been a lot in the news about reading dogs’ body language cues, many of us in the dog training industry have been trying to educate the public for years. It has been my life’s passion to help people understand dog language better and prevent dog bites. Whether I’m lecturing to a big audience or teaching a small group class, I am always interpreting body language for pet parents to help them understand how to interpret it themselves. It’s unfortunate that the awful event at 9News brought this subject into the spotlight, but it is a blessing as more people will hopefully pay attention to how they interact with dogs, including their own.

There are three different things to remember when you are going to interact with a dog, and although there are several other factors that could potentially go in to a human/dog interaction, I believe these are the most important:

1) The dog’s body language and cues

2) Your body language and cues

3) The environment and potential stressors around the dog

First and foremost, does the dog appear scared or anxious? Is her mouth closed tightly? Is her tail between her legs, can you see the whites of her eyes, is she standing behind her parent, or trying to get away? Is she avoiding eye contact, whining, barking, or growling? These are all signs of stress and you need to approach with caution. Or better yet, keep your distance and don't approach at all.

(This dog is facing sideways, ears are down, eyes are made smaller as an appeasement behavior, and his lips are pursed with nervous anticipation of what the person with the camera is going to do next)

Secondly, how will the dog perceive you as you are approaching? Do you have a big computer bag in your hand, a broom, or an open umbrella? Are you approaching from directly in front of the dog, or from the side? Are you using an excited, loud voice or a soft, friendly one? Just because you are excited to meet the ginormous Irish Wolfhound on the street doesn’t mean he will be excited to meet you.

And lastly, what is going on around you? Are there construction trucks going by, or sirens from a fire truck going off? Did the dog just get in to a scuffle at the dog park and you are greeting in the parking lot? Are you in the vet’s office where a dog just got his ears cleaned out? Keep in mind that you may have no idea what has just happened to the dog, so always read body language first, then ASK before introducing yourself, if you choose to do so.

(This puppy has a furrowed brow, pursed lips, and her ears are down and forward... She is unsure, worried, and scared)

Behavior is always context specific, and dogs will react, in part, according to environmental stimuli. If the stimuli is perceived as good (liver treats, person kneeling, another friendly dog, etc) the dog may be less anxious and will be open to a friendly greeting. If the stimuli is scary (loud noises, bright lights, tall boisterous person, etc), the dog will be more adrenalized and won’t be as emotionally/mentally equipped to engage in a greeting.

This is why I always ask people to set dogs up to succeed. It is so important for the emotional health, well-being, and safety of all involved. Never approach a dog without reading their cues, and always ask the dog’s pet parent before greeting.
Kari Bastyr, MS, VSPDT
Denver, Co
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