I wish I had a nickel for every call I’ve gotten where the client was shocked that their ‘kid-tolerant’ dog bit, nipped, growled at or muzzle-punched their crawler or toddler. In my opinion, many of these dogs have been screaming for help for quite some time before they felt the need to escalate, and their humans just didn’t pick up on it. But growling, nipping and biting certainly do get people’s attention, don’t they?
The fact is that dogs use subtle body-language signals to communicate some very complex, but very direct messages. Let’s take a look at some real-life examples.
In this clip, Amber the Golden Retriever is telling crawler Cedric that his advances are just not welcome! Amber does her best to politely ignore the baby, and as he begins to handle her about the head and face, you can see Amber show us some eye-shifting behaviors, a pretty good signal that she’s not comfortable with this. As baby becomes more vigorous in grabbing the dog’s ears and face, Amber pulls away, flicks her tongue and then partially withdraws, turning her face away from the baby altogether. Among dogs, tongue-flicks communicate stress, and the “look-away” is a social signal that dogs use to communicate “your behavior is completely inappropriate!” Unfortunately, the baby isn’t capable of getting that message! As the baby comes back for round two, Amber continues to let him know his advances are unwelcome in a much more pronounced way. This is a pretty tight shot, but it appears that Amber is somewhat cornered, which would be another factor in heightening her stress during this unwelcome encounter.
Barbara Davis, CPDT, CDBC
IAABC #134, APDT #65050