Stress escalation ladder

Calming signals, dog language, escalation ladder, canine stress
Dog bites don’t come out of the blue

It’s sometimes good to remind ourselves of what our dogs are. Dogs are relatives of the modern day wolf, both having evolved from a common ancestor. Is it not fascinating that when we chose to domesticate an animal, we chose a predator and welcomed him into our homes. Irrespective of the form the current dog takes, he does share genes with a predator and those instincts will expose themselves in extreme conditions. What I mean is that all dogs, when pushed far enough, will bite!

When a dog bites, it’s rarely out of the blue. There are several signs the dog gives us. Turid Rugaas identifies seven different kinds of stress signs that can be observed. Learning to recognise these can help you take corrective action early and prevent bites.

At the first there are  Displacement Behaviours and Calming Signals. Displacement behaviours include scratching or sniffing the ground. Calming signals include yawning, lip licking, looking away, turning the head away and moving slowly. A dog may exhibit one or more of these behaviours and signals.
Humans have similar behaviour. Imagine yourself in a social situation with two people starting to get into a heated argument. You might find yourself have displacement behaviours like shuffling your feet or clearing your throat awkwardly. You might find yourself trying to defuse the situation by making a joke or changing the topic. That’s exactly what your dog is trying to do with Calming Signals. The dog is attempting to defuse the situation.

If the situation does not defuse, then the dog may start showing Stress Reactions. The dog may start panting, shaking off adrenaline, sweating under the paws, trembling, shaking, showing the whites of the eyes, raising the hackles and dilating his pupils. When under extreme duress, we too show similar signs. Think about the last time you were shaking with anxiety. That’s how your dog feels when he is shaking.

At this point, if the threat is still not neutralised and the dog is not seeing an option of leaving, he will start to Focus. There will be no more calming signals. The dog may close his mouth shut and just freeze. If we were pushed to a corner and saw an inevitable threat heading our way, then we too would focus. Basically we are preparing to defend ourselves.

Dogs warn that they are ready to defend themselves by some ritualised behaviours. There might be growls and showing of teeth. At this point, your dog is using every last resource he has to let everyone around know that he is feeling immense stress and he is not finding a way out. So he is preparing to attack. Finally, if none of his several attempts to communicate worked, he will go for a Lunge and finally a Bite.

So you see a bite is really the last option for your dog. He has a wide repertoire to communicate his feelings. But his language is subtle.  He may move from one set of signals to the other, trying different tactics to communicate with the environment around him. As you can notice, very little here is vocal. So we really need to watch and look carefully. These signs will be swift, but will be there for sure.

Sometimes, a dog may bypass a lot of this and go straight for the bite. Such dogs are either ill or have had an extremely traumatic past. But this is very rare. In most cases, it will suffice just to start reading your dog’s language and then take him out of any threatening situation at the earliest. As he learns to walk away from stressful situations, he will learn that he has the option of walking away. That will give him confidence to start facing his fears. 

Bites due to poor health

This week, I want to talk about a very serious topic – biting family dogs. A dog is a non confrontational animal by nature and gets along well with humans and other dogs. So a bite is very uncharacteristic for a dog and really is the dog’s last effort at asking someone to back off. If a dog is feeling so cornered as to bite, we need to examine what is causing him to feel so insecure; and it’s our responsibility as their pet parents not to put them in a situation that makes them feel so desperate.

Dogs bite when stress mounts so high that they don’t see a way out. But realising that the dog is in that situation after the bite happens is a bit too late. As pet parents, we need to get good at reading our dogs’ emotions well, so that we can tell if our dog is stressed early on and take the necessary actions.

To know if your dog is stressed, check for one or more of these odd behaviours – frequent loss of temper, biting the leash or pants, mouthing excessively, copious water consumption, repetitive behaviours like digging, chasing one’s own tail, biting oneself in the same spot, scratching oneself in the same place etc.

Leading causes of extreme stress in dogs that can lead to bites is poor health, pain, hunger, being tied for long hours, being alone for long hours and punishments in the form of beating and intimidation. There are many other things that cause stress in a dog, but today, I want to focus on two things in particular.

Health and pain can be the most elusive of these, since it’s hard for us to spot what’s going on. That’s why I’d like to focus on that today. Dogs can be quite stoic when it comes to expressing pain and discomfort and we too can be a bit blind sometimes in our busy lives. We do not see the signs that tell us that our dog is suffering. Regular visits to the vet will not suffice. These days, vets run so busy that it’s easy to miss out less obvious diseases. But as pet parents, we need to watch closely and be responsible for the animal that is completely trusting us to do right by him.

Behavioural issues that have their roots in health issues will be combined with visible signs of poor health. These can include poor, dry fur, dandruff, bad breath, over or under weight, unclear eyes, funny gait etc. If your dog is falling sick frequently with repeated loose stools, tick and flea infestations, allergies etc. then you need to be concerned about his health.

Common health issues include joint problems like hip dysplasia, allergies, heart issues and hypothyroidism. These days, with all the extensive breeding going on, several of our dogs are coming with these issues coded in their genes. So unless you have one of those hardy Indies, do watch your dog closely for these recurring problems.

Behavioural issues that have basis in ill health cannot be fixed with any amount of behavioural corrections and should not be done so either. An animal in discomfort should not be kept in that state for the sake of the animal and the safety of people and animals around.

So, as responsible pet parents, it is down to us to observe the behaviour of our dogs, identify extreme behaviours and ensure that any underlying health issues are detected and taken care of.

Respecting a growl

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.