A friend recently shared a video that has been making the rounds on the internet. She was not able to comprehend what was going on. The video showed a dog sitting in front of a big cake, curling his lips back in a snarl. People around were touching his teeth with icing dipped fingers, which would make the dog stop snarling and lick the icing off the finger and then start snarling again. The people found this very funny and kept giggling about it.
A closer look at this video reveals that the dog is not only snarling, but is giving several other signals. This body is stiff, his hackles are raised, he has whale eyes (where the whites of the eyes are revealed excessively) and there is also a low rumble of a growl. These are all signs. The dog is trying to say something and the overtone of that something is “Please give me space, I am feeling pushed”. It’s meant to act as a warning. A dog is on the brink of his “fight or flight” response being triggered. And when it does, if he does not see an immediate way out, he will be forced to fight!
Often we might think a dog has a way out. But clearly the dog does not always see that way out. This might have a bit to do with the way humans and dogs perceive space, depth and colour. A dark room that could trap him further might not seem like a good option for “flight” to a dog. The other explanation could come from the fact that we underestimate how stressed a dog is when he is showing us these signs. When an animal is indeed this stressed, his brain is in a panic mode and he might not be able to see clearly all the options he has in front of him.
In any case, it’s best to back off from the dog. If you are concerned about how frequently your dog is behaving like this, seek help from a professional to understand why your dog is getting stressed so easily. But at the time your dog is snarling or growling, back off and give him maximum space to compose himself again. Growling by itself is not a problem. Growling is a symptom of a problem – elevated levels of underlying stress coming either from poor health, environmental stressors or unresolved baggage from the dogs past. Of course, there are other reasons too and hence needs close examination of the dog, his habits and his lifestyle.
So that explains the dog’s behaviour on the video. How do we understand the people’s behaviour? When an animal is warning them so clearly, why are they seemingly blind to the dog’s signs. In my experience, the most common reason is lack of awareness. I do believe that if we as pet parents took responsibility to learn about calming signals and dog body language, we will not only avoid our dogs a lot of stress, avoid miscommunication with them and avoid dangerous accidents. But the best part of it all is that once we start learning their language and start responding to them more appropriately, our relationship with them elevates to a new level all together. There are several videos, books and articles online about Calming Signals and dog body language. It’s not that hard to learn about this. But it’s not only safer once you know this, it’s also so much more rewarding.