Speaking their language

November 9, 2019

Veterinary professionals, you can help teach clients how to differentiate between an aggressive, anxious and relaxed dog by understanding these canine body language basics. Here are the basics from Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference speaker Dr. Shana Gilbert-Gregory.

Miscommunication between dogs and humans can negatively impact the human-animal bond. One way to combat this communication barrier is helping veterinary clients learn how to speak the same language as your patients.

It's commonly believed among pet owners that a when a dog wags its tail, or when it's smiling, it's happy. But as you know and Shana Gilbert-Gregory, VMD, MS, DAVCB, a behavioral medicine clinician at Mount Laurel Animal Hospital in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, explains to clients regularly-that's not always the case.

In fact, an aggressive dog might wag its tail and bite at the same time, and when a dog gives a lot of “kisses,” pet owners might not know it's really actually anxious. Teaching dog owners how to distinguish between relaxed, anxious and aggressive dogs in the moment will help to prevent a traumatic escalation of negative behavior at home and in the veterinary hospital.

“Dogs talk all the time. They're trying to talk to us the same way we talk to each other,” said Dr. Gilbert-Gregory in her session at the 30th Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference (ACVC). “The problem is we don't understand them. They're not capable of learning our language, so we have to learn theirs.”

When it comes to understanding canine body language, it's important to pay attention to what different parts of the dog's body are saying, said Dr. Gilbert-Gregory. Body postures, movement and facial gestures can be used to relay this information.

What does a relaxed dog look like?

  • Posture. Carries its weight evenly and may do a “play bow” or wiggle.
  • Tail position. Relaxed and neutral position, and may be wagging. 
  • Ears. In neutral position.
  • Mouth. May be open with tongue hanging out, or may be closed with lips relaxed over teeth.
  • Eyes. Should be soft, with normal pupil size.
  • Appetite. A dog is relaxed when it readily eats: “I use ability to eat as a big indicator of behavior state,” said Dr. Gilbert-Gregory. “If they aren't eating, they're not comfortable.”

What does an anxious dog look like?

  • Body movement and fur. Piloerection (raised hair on the shoulders and back). Dog might roll over and lift a forelimb.
  • Expression. Might have submissive smile, which looks like a very wide smile.
  • Ears. Pinned back.
  • Mouth. Panting, lip licking and yawning.
  • Eyes. Whale eye (white portion of eye showing at corner or rim), pupil dilation or averted gaze. It's important that dog owners understand what whale eye says for dogs. “The dog is saying, I am not a threat, and I'm not sure if I'm going to need to move away from you to disengage from this situation,” said Dr. Gilbert-Gregory. “It's a stress signal.”

Share this handout with clients

This printable sheet explains some signs of canine distress along with pictures.

What about aggression?

“Aggression is a form of communication that's actually a normal and natural form of communication. If dogs perceive a threat, they're going to protect themselves,” said Dr. Gilbert-Gregory. “[But] having animals exhibit aggression towards you is brutal as a human.”

Aggression is scary, especially when exhibited in a context that is unexpected by people. And when dogs exhibit aggression in contexts people find undesirable or unpredictable, it can dramatically affect the human-animal bond, she said.

An aggressive dog can be scary for pet owners and the veterinary team. If you see these signs, take a step back, Dr. Gilbert-Gregory said:

  • Posture. Muscles tense, weight shifts back and low to the ground. May also roll over to expose belly or raise up one paw.
  • Hair. Piloerection is a red flag.
  • Tail. May have tail tucked or low to the ground. May be wagging tail either slowly or rapidly.
  • Mouth. Pulled back, with possible growling, snarling, excessive panting, lip licking chewing or yawning. “When you walk into an exam room and the dog is yawning or lip licking in response to your arrival or approach, they're likely politely telling you to back up and disengage,” said Dr. Gilbert-Gregory.

Making sure your clients as well as your veterinary team understand these canine body language basics can not only prevent traumatic and bond-breaking situations between a pet and owner but strengthen the bond between veterinary professionals and their patients.

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