Dogs are constantly communicating with us via their behaviour. Some messages are less urgent, but others should never be ignored. Here are 5 dog behaviours that you shouldn’t ignore in your dog!
1. Tail twitching
It’s a myth that a waggy tail is a happy tail! In fact, dogs use their tail to indicate lots of different messages. In fact, the tail is the one part of your dog that cannot lie. If it stiffens and points straight up, the dog might be trying to caution another dog or person to approach in a different way. If it drops between the legs, the dog could be anxious and will need space from whatever is causing the fear.
But, in all cases, if it stiffens and starts twitching at the end, you need to take action and de-escalate the situation. This dog could be guarding something, like food or a toy. But, he could also be trying to alert you to the fact that something has made him uncomfortable. This could be anything, but I see it a lot in dogs that are roughly handled. Or maybe a person has just entered the room, or a noise has triggered them outside.
When this happens, think about what has changed in the last few minutes that might have provoked the twitchy tail. But if you are not sure, then it’s safest to just remove your dog, and try to figure it out later.
You can trust a soft, full, bouncy tail, that flows easily from side to side. This tail is likely to indicate a happy and content dog, so don’t worry.
If you are a dog care professional, also check out this video on YouTube!
This can be an early warning sign that something is going wrong, especially when combined with one or two of the other behaviours I will talk about in this blog. Starring happens when a dog becomes very alert to something. You should be able to tell what that is easily enough though, as the dog will usually be starring right at it, or at least the last place he saw it.
Starring intensifies as adrenaline is released into the body. As the body enters into fight or flight mode, a dogs sight and hearing sensitivity is greatly increased in preparation for what might be coming. His muscles will also stiffen as that adrenaline pumps round. So you might also notice the ears standing to attention, and the dog looking a little taller at the front. This is an early sign that your dog is getting ready to defend himself.
If you see this behaviour in your dog, first figure out what has gone wrong. Then, immediately help them make space. Either, take them away from the situation, or remove the situation from them. In either case, they will appreciate you stepping in to advocate for them at a time they are thinking about having to defend themselves.
3. Lip Licking
Lip licking is a sign of very mild anxiety. When a dog is just out of their comfort zone they will lick their lips a lot. This can be a good behaviour to see if you are trying to rehabilitate an anxious dog. If you are controlling the environment, and managing your dogs anxiety levels carefully, this is a good sign they are in the learning zone.
However, if you are not training or working with your dog, and they start licking their lips, something could be about to go wrong. The brain is in problem solving mode. They are unsure, and might need some help figuring stuff out. Unlike starring and tail twitching, the best way to handle this is to stop and wait. No need to make space in the case of lip licking, but the dog is unsure about something and needs time to understand it.
Don’t force them to approach though, let them take their own time. Many behaviour problems start with a well meaning human encouraging a worried dog. The dog is already in an uncertain situation that could lead to a fear response, if you aren’t careful. If you push them, the emotion could escalate, and this could be the start of a new behaviour problem. If you take a moment and let them work it out themselves, they’ll realise they are safe, and that will be the end of it.
There are many ways a dog might refuse something, but in all cases it is because the dog doesn’t want to take the next step in a behaviour sequence or chain. This could be because they don’t like what’s coming next, or they have linked the next step to an event they don’t like that is further down the chain. A good example of this is the anxious dog that refuses to go into their crate after the owner takes their lunch out of the fridge. In this case, going in their crate is the second step in a sequence that leads to being left alone while the owner is at work.
Other examples could be refusing to walk away from the house because it they feel safer at home, going in the car because it has been linked to a trip to the vets, or refusing to get picked up.
On the milder end of the scale, refusal behaviour could look like turning a head away, pushing a collar or nail clippers away with a paw, or placing a bum down on the pavement. When refusal is ignored, it can escalate into harder to ignore behaviours which often include growling and snapping, and it could eventually become very serious and end in a bite.
Of course, not all refusal is to avoid pain or fear. Some dogs have learned to use refusal to get their way, and some to get attention. Unless you are sure though, er on the side of caution as getting it wrong could have big consequences.
It seems obvious written here, but I’ve lost count of the number of times people have been bitten by dogs that are trying to hide. Our hearts go out to frightened dogs. And when they retreat into the back of their crate, or behind the sofa, we instinctively want to rescue them.
However, when a dog hides they are massively over threshold. They are not thinking straight, they are in emergency mode and can only behave in a way that they perceive will keep them safe. This means protecting their space, and themselves, aggressively if necessary.
This could happen to any dog, of course, but rescue dogs are particularly vulnerable to it. It can take quite a few days for a rescue dog to know if they are safe or not. So it doesn’t take much before they retreat to a “safe place” and refuse to come out. As I say, any dog could be frightened enough to want to hide. A change of environment to something they aren’t used to is a common cause. This could be going to a dog sitter, or waiting in the dog walkers van. Sudden noises, traumatic experiences, pain, or the possibility of any of those could quickly send them to their safe space, as could general low resilience, overwhelm, grief, or trauma.
Give them time
Time and patience are all that is usually needed here, although these can be challenging when you are faced with a frightened dog. Make sure your dogs needs are attended to, and just wait it out. Definitely stop trying to bring them out. No hands reaching in, no eyes looking in (no matter how sympathetic) and no trails of treats leading the dog back to you.
If you imagine something you are scared of, spiders maybe? Now imagine how many hobnobs or £1 coins you would need to encourage you into a room full of them! Eventually the adrenaline will subside and curiosity should get the better of them. But treats won’t help a scared dog.
While you wait, take some time to consider what went wrong and make a plan to prevent the situation from occurring in the future. If they are still there after a couple of days, then that is the time to seek help from an experienced behaviourist who can assess the situation properly. You’ll need someone who knows how to bring the situation to a resolution, but without causing further, unnecessary trauma.
The end result
In all cases, these behaviours can escalate. They are all ways of our dogs telling us something is wrong. If we ignore these signs they can change into harder to ignore behaviours. This could mean the beginning of behaviour problems, or it could result in seemingly unprovoked aggression.
When we notice and respond, we can de-escalate a situation quickly. But, we also show our dogs that we are listening and will advocate for them. This is incredibly empowering for our dogs and can give a massive confidence boost – and prevent behaviour problems from starting!
How can I help you with your dogs behaviour training?
Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!