In fact, the “unpredictable” bite often would be quite predictable if more pet owners took the time to “speak dog.” Though many owners don’t realize it, their dog expresses himself loudly in dog language, doing everything he can to let us know exactly how he feels.
Here’s a common example: Grouchy the Lhasa Apso is lying comfortably on the bed. The owner wants to stretch out her legs, so she needs to move Grouchy. As her hands approach the dog, Grouchy’s body stiffens, his head lowers, his neck extends upward, and he licks his lips. He then stares intently at the owner, raises his trembling upper lip slightly, and lets out a rumble. As the owner grabs Grouchy, he explodes in a fit of rage and bites her on the hand.
Grouchy spoke loudly to that owner, but she didn’t listen. In the past, he had often progressed from the initial stiff-body phase to the grumbling stage without further incident, so the owner felt that the bite “came out of nowhere”; in fact, it was overdue. Had she listened to Grouchy the first time he exhibited that behavior, not only would she have avoided a bite, she could have gotten help from a trainer and stopped the misconduct immediately. Now she’s afraid of Grouchy, and the bond between them has been damaged.
Owners of dogs like Grouchy might think that their pet is trying to dominate them or is just plain mean, but most dogs that bite are fearful, anxious, or submissive. Dominant leader dogs are confident and cool, and are usually not aggressive dogs. Most owner-directed aggression is due to anxiety, not the wish to subjugate. When owners misunderstand that, they often use physical force to control their dog in an attempt to get him to behave. That tends to make the problem worse, actually escalating the aggression.
Humans are primarily verbal communicators and are apt to understand sounds much better than they do body language. A person usually grasps the meaning of a growl or a bark but won’t comprehend or even notice nonverbal cues. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists has put together a useful table of those cues, which is on our website. Check out the list, and see how many you can interpret. In future blogs I’ll suggest techniques you can use to successfully interact with most dogs, whether it’s your own furry friend or the one you encounter at the park. Begin to watch other peoples’ pooches and really pay attention to their eyes, ears, face, tail, and body position. In other words, learn to listen with your eyes!