by Kate Wright, ABCDT
Even before social distancing became the norm, three to six feet of distance between me and another person felt comfortable. After an encounter with a person that likes to be very close to someone’s face when talking, I would feel a little anxious. I would notice myself taking a few steps back and trying to end the conversation quickly to regain my personal space. Personal space varies in different cultures, and certainly varies between individuals for a variety of reasons. What many people may not recognize is that dogs also have a varying personal space bubble. Some dogs may have no sense of personal space, but a large majority are more comfortable with social distancing than you may realize.
When you watch dogs interacting, you can see that dogs will use their body language to communicate to the other dog if they are comfortable or uncomfortable. A confident and calm dog will signal to an oncoming dog that they are willing to come closer by curving their body to the side, gently wagging their tail with their facial expressions soft and mouth relaxed. If the other dog is approaching too fast or too intently, they may sniff at the ground, turn their head to the side, or even try to walk away. Most dogs would prefer to avoid conflict by gaining distance from what is causing them stress. Dogs use their body language to try and calm themselves, another dog, or a person approaching them. You may notice stress signals are also called calming signals or displacement behavior in dogs.
Watching the whole dog is key to understanding these signs, as dogs use their eyes, ears, mouth, body posture, tail position, and feet to communicate. Many people realize a stressed dog will have wide eyes, ears pulled back, low body posture, tail tucked, and see the dog avoiding interaction. A stressed dog may also lick their lips quickly, drool, yawn, lift a front paw, pant (when it’s not hot), shed excessively, have their hackles up, shake (like they are wet), and freeze. A dog that freezes with a hard stare, tense facial expression and forward body posture is prepared to defend itself and may escalate to aggressive behavior. These stress signals are a dog’s language, and if recognized and respected the dog can gain the space they need to feel comfortable. Also, they will be more likely to use these subtler signals in the future if they work. Unfortunately, if the signals are ignored or unintentionally punished the dog is more likely to use stronger signals the next time to try and communicate their discomfort. Stronger signals can include, growling, barking, lunging and biting. Genetics, past experiences and prior training effect how quickly a dog will escalate its stress signals.
We can use our voices to politely ask someone to back up or leave us alone. If the person ignores us, we feel justified in raising our voice or calling for help. Our dogs rely on us to respond to their polite requests. If our dogs trust us and we have a history of respecting what they are communicating, we become the help that gets them out of an uncomfortable situation. For instance, I can recognize my dog’s stress when seeing another dog from a short distance. I can then lead her in a different direction to give her space to calm herself before going forward. My dog will be less likely to have to escalate her body language, and we have avoided a bad experience for her. People approaching a dog can also look for these stress signs and decide whether the dog is comfortable or not with being pet or touched.
I am always working on better communication with my dogs because I want them to feel as safe and confident as possible. My big, fluffy rescue dog has learned to tell me he wants pets but only on his ears, chest and back by turning his head when I go in for a hug. He will also walk a little past me so I am positioned at his back. It is almost irresistible for a human to not want to hug him, but I must try. I did not raise him so he may never have been hugged, or it feels too much like restraint to him. People express their affection much differently than dogs and I do not want to constantly be ignoring his head turns so that he eventually will not enjoy our interactions. By offering attention that our dogs find comfortable and enjoyable, we are positively reinforcing the behavior that we like and want to see in the future.
This is a brief overview of a fascinating topic. If you have a dog that is often stressed or fearful, please enlist the help of a professional dog trainer or behavior consultant. One of my favorite books regarding dog body language is: On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas. It is available on Amazon. And watch your dogs as they explore the world. They have a lot to say.