A Dog's Eye View: Understanding your dogs' body language

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Sandra Kruczek

The topic of hugging dogs comes up so often and has such important repercussions that it’s worth addressing again and again. This past year, we saw a very serious outcome when a Denver TV newscaster got too close to a dog that was unknown to her. This same situation occurs in a dog’s life almost every day, and more often than not it involves children.

We teach our children to give a hug to family members and close friends to show affection. Unlike dogs, primates tend to do this. We encourage it. It becomes a very natural thing for well-meaning adults to want to hug dogs. This may be fine with our own pet dog that knows us and accepts our proximity and control over his body when we hug him. However, we are mistaken if we assume all dogs enjoy it.

In dog language, reaching over a dog’s shoulders and putting our face near their face can be interpreted as a direct threat. If one dog does that to another dog, it may trigger a fight or a bite. Proximity and personal space is very important to dogs. A dog will tell us that if we listen and watch his body language.

Many kind-hearted people are uneducated when it comes to recognizing and understanding their own dog’s body language. We spend a fair amount of time in our training classes teaching skills and strategies for dog-to-people and dog-to-dog greetings.

Some examples of an anxious or worried dog are: turning his head away and averting his eyes from the approaching dog or person, blinking or possibly sniffing the ground and putting his ears back and yawning. Ultimately, he may bark and lunge. That dog is telling us he needs space and not to come any closer.

We all see children hugging and kissing their favorite stuffed dog toy. Remember that children naturally might replay this scenario with live dogs. Live dogs are fluffy and cute, too.

Asking permission to pet a dog we meet on the street is extremely important. However, many dog owners are rolling the dice when they say, “Sure, he’s just fine with strangers.” Not all “strangers” are acceptable to all dogs. It’s OK to say, “Not today,” to a friendly stranger’s request to pet your dog.

It’s up to people to make a point to learn more about what dogs are saying to us in the only way they know — through their body language. They’re “speaking” to us all of the time. I think it’s fine to admire a dog without petting, kissing or hugging it.  

Some wonderful resources for learning about dog body language are: “Canine Behavior – A Photo Illustrated Handbook” by Barbara Handelman, “On Talking Terms with Dogs” by Turid Rugaas and “How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves” by Sophia Yin (my personal favorite for all dog owners).

Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training, LLC with more than 25 years of experience.

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