By Steven Appelbaum
As all experienced dog trainers and behavioral specialists will tell you, when dealing with behavioral challenges, you must address their root causes if you realistically expect to eliminate or reduce the actual behavior. This is relevant for groomers.
Dogs who try to bite you are typically doing so for two—possibly three —reasons:
Stress is one of the most common causes of aggression. Think about this from the dogs’ perspective. They are brought to a strange location; one they have learned to view negatively. Once there, they are approached by someone who might not take the time to respond to any of their signals of distress, alarm, etc. Instead, they’re put in a room where other dogs might be barking or excited, and then placed in a cage.
After a while, they are taken out of their cage by someone who also might ignore all attempts on the dogs’ part to communicate their discomfort. They are put in a cold tub and bathed—not something most dogs enjoy—and scrubbed with shampoos that could smell unnatural to the dog. They are then either put back in the cage or tied to a table and roughly (from their perspective) brushed, combed, and groomed. The procedure, while not agonizing, is often not comfortable. All of which can cause stress.
Some dogs learn that by being aggressive they can prevent certain things from happening. For example; a groomer reaches for an area of the dog’s body that she doesn’t want touched. The dog bites or snaps and the groomer quickly stops trying to touch her in that spot.
This is exactly as the name suggests. When confronted with pain, dogs will fight (snap, growl, bite), take flight (attempt to escape), or freeze. Some dogs who initially try to escape and can’t will default to one of the other behaviors—biting or freezing. Regardless, the root cause isn’t the aggression, it is the pain stimulating it.
How and Why Dogs Communicate
Dogs are amazing social creatures with very sophisticated, subtle, and not so subtle ways of communicating with one another. Although modern dogs are products of human breeding, their basic social make up is to form cooperative groups to hunt.
Dogs are wired to interact together. Fighting can cause injury, and, in the wild, injury can mean death. If injured, a dog can’t run, can’t keep up, and can’t hunt – meaning he doesn’t eat. If the dog doesn’t eat, he dies. Much of dog communication is about avoiding conflict with one another. How? By clearly letting other dogs know in dozens of ways what his mood and emotional state are, so that they can act accordingly.
Body posture is one of the ways dogs communicate with each other. Dogs will also use body posture to communicate with human beings. However, many people have very limited or no understanding of it. If a dog is trying to communicate something to you via body posture and you are oblivious, misread it, or just don’t care, he could escalate to less subtle, more direct means of communicating, such as biting you.
Let’s review some common body postures:
Dogs showing Neutral Relaxed body language are communicating that they are comfortable. The ears are held up; the dog’s general stance is relaxed. He isn’t necessarily friendly, but is not unfriendly either. The tail is relaxed or wagging very slightly. Dogs exhibiting these signals should be praised and approached in a calm, friendly fashion.
In Arousal posture, the dog’s chest is thrown out and the weight is on his front legs, which are stiff. His ears aren’t just held up, they are slightly forward as well. He is staring directly at you and his eyes are large. His tail is up and might be wagging stiffly. A word of caution about tail wagging: Many people are bitten because they assume tail wagging is always a friendly gesture. It is not. Stiff tail wagging with the tail held high is usually a warning as well as a sign of dominance. The dog’s lips might be lifted to show you his lovely and large teeth. He might be growling or silent. When you see this type of posture stop and use caution.
Here’s a dog secret: A direct straight-line approach with eye contact is usually considered rude and forceful in a dog’s world. Instead, in a friendly fashion, avoid eye contact, crouch slightly, and approach the dog at an angle.
Most people recognize Active Submission, although they might miss some of the signs, which include ears back, tail tucked or held low, a raised paw, and eyes half closed. The dog’s body is often crouched, some might urinate, others will grimace or display a submissive grin—(they wrinkle their muzzles and show their teeth.) Dogs exhibiting these behaviors will occasionally pant, which can be a sign of stress. Some dogs will growl if approached. The thing to understand about these dogs is that ignoring their warning signs can sometimes cause them to escalate to aggression. Calm, gentle handling is imperative.
What sometimes happens when Active Submission signs are ignored? It escalates to Defensive Aggression. These dogs exhibit many of the same signs as Active Submission but they are more exaggerated; the ears are back, the tail is down, the hackles might be raised, the muzzle in a snarl, growling, and the dog is ready to flee or attack. In a natural setting, if a dog exhibited this behavior and you approached, most would simply back away or run away. Neither of which is an option when a dog is unable to escape. These dogs must be approached and handled with care or they might bite.
Hopefully this furthers your understanding of what dogs are trying to communicate with their body language. In future articles, I will address ways to handle some of the more difficult types of dogs and how to reduce stress.
Steve Appelbaum is the President of Animal Behavior College, the nation’s largest animal career vocational school. Steve is a dog trainer, lecturer, writer, and educator with more than 35 years in the pet industry. He is currently being trained by his Basset Hound, Truffles.