The bark before the bite

Language aids communication, which is critical for inter acting with each other; to work with each other and to survive. It is the same in the canine world. Dogs are social creatures too and they too use language extensively to communicate with each other and their survival is dependent on this.

The canine language is a fascinating one; it has a motely collection of vocal expressions -barks and growls-and a rich repertoire of body language and mimicry. While we are more familiar with the vocal expressions, it is the more subtle body language and mimicry that is relatively less understood, but more critical in communicating with a dog. This part of the dog’s language is used for everyday communication in the canine world. They are subtle signals used by a dog while interacting with other dogs or humans. These signals were termed as `Calming Signals’ by Turid Rugaas, an international behaviourist from Norway.
These signals are varied, precise and subdued so much so that they can be easily missed if you aren’t specifically looking for them. Licking of the lips, blinking, yawning, turning the head away, freezing or lifting a paw are the subtle signs, while the less subtle ones are sitting or lying down, the playbow and smiling. Dogs can use a combination of signals.
Calming signals are used by a dog to keep his greeting with another dog or human cordial. A dog may use this signal to remind another impolite dog or human to be polite.
When there are stressors in the environment, a dog may use them to express his own anxiety. Calming signals may also be used to put at ease anxious or hyper people or rambunctious juvenile dogs.
You can see street dogs using these signals aplenty. Their language is highly developed and polished. Contrary to popular belief, street dogs are not confrontational. They first give out plenty of calming signals. When those signals are ignored and people continue to encroach their private space or continue to be impolite to them, they end up using what one might call `distance creating signals’.These include growls, barks and lunges. When all else fails they resort to biting. This holds true for all dogs.
So technically, bites don’t come out of the blue. A bite is preceded by numerous calming signals -growls, snarls, etc.
At this point if the situation is not defused, then a bite is imminent. If there was no `growl’ before the bite, then the dog has unfortunately learned that no amount of subtle signals get heard. It’s like when you talk to someone and get no response, you escalate it to a yell and then a screech. It’s the same with dogs. In such situations, it is best to seek the help of a canine behaviourist to bring the dog back to `speaking mode’ from `screeching mode’.

Learn to observe calming signals so that you can respond sooner to your dog. Learn to understand the highly developed canine language to prevent untoward incidents. 


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