Often, strangers try to touch or interact with dogs without asking their permission, or in some cases they don’t even ask ours. It’s perfectly natural for us to want to love every dog we see. The problem is not all dogs want to be fiddled with by strangers and here's how they tell us.
Dogs get worried and scared of things they think may be threatening to them just like we do, so even if the excited stranger is friendly they can make our dogs feel tense. Our job as their responsible and empathetic guardians is to read the earliest signs of worry that it’s possible to see, then change the thing that’s starting to stress them, and deal with it to make them feel better. Dogs often make their feelings clear to keen fussers, and grabby strangers but many people don’t understand their requests. Here are some common dog requests that can be easily missed.
"I'm not sure about this"
Licking their lips or nose, most dogs lick their faces or lips if they are feeling uneasy, a big wide and slow tongue means the dog is very uneasy indeed.
Yawning when approached or when something changes in the environment can tell us that the change is making them uneasy.
Tension around the lips and eyes may show the onset of fear and stress. The tension is something that is extremely subtle, and you might really need to look for it. Pinched lips are a sign that a dog is worried. A tense face may lead to a half moon eye, showing more of the eye white than a relaxed dog would.
"Please leave me alone"
A lowered head or head dip occurs when the dog’s head goes below the line along the dog’s back. A head dip is a subtle sign but very expressive.
A lowered tail position by a dog who feels worried will always be lower than their tail’s neutral position. A tucked tail and body meant that the dog is starting to become more worried.
A slightly changed ear position, ears that go out to the side of the head, even by a little bit, may show “go away” communication.
Ears that go backwards may be telling us that the dog is scared. This is known as seal ears. A dog with long or heavy ears, for example a Cocker Spaniel may pinch them into the side of her head.
Averting their eyes away from the thing that worries them, including you is a cut off signal, used to tell us they really don’t want to interact. The dog who averts their eyes may also turn their head away.
Head turning, looking away and ignoring are displayed in a way that almost appears like the dog thinks if she can’t see the stressor, it is not there. This behaviour can be an important sign of low-level stress but is also common in the state of learned helplessness. Some dogs will look at the wall to avoid being looked at
Eye narrowing, and blinking are signs that a stress reaction might be starting, she may also show a dilated pupil depending on how quickly she is getting stressed.
This final set of responses are more likely to show confusion than stress in the first instance.
"I'm busy. Can't you see I'm changing the subject?"
Sniffing when confused or unsure is a type of conflicted behaviour. The dog can see the stressor but decides to change the subject instead. The act of intense sniffing is another way for a dog to give the impression of ignoring the stressor in the hope that is goes away. This is not to be confused with a dog’s natural need to sniff and explore with his nose, as scent is the dog’s way of exploring his world, sniffing enriches his life greatly. By exploring the entire dog’s body language and the situation in context you will be able to recognise what type of sniffing the dog is displaying.
Picking a toy up is another sign of confusion or displacement behaviour.
The dog may scratch himself like he’s carrying a million fleas, suddenly and out of nowhere. Which is an attempt to change the subject.
"Thank goodness that's over!"
Shaking off occurs when a dog has passed through mild stress and is returning to normal we often see this when a harness or collar is removed or when an anxious dog comes through their own front door after a walk outside. A shake off appears like the dog is shaking water from their coat and can occur when they manage to escape from someone who is determined to interact with them.
There are many other types of behaviour that will occur if a dog is not left alone after these few early requests. They might even get defensive if they can’t escape a scary place or person. It’s all based on a change in their physiology related to increasing stress though, and they sincerely can’t help it.
If you would like to learn more, take a look at my 30 day program over at canineprinciples.com