Don’t ignore your dog’s early warning signals

When the “check engine” light comes on in our vehicle, most of us take notice and take the appropriate steps to have the vehicle serviced. We do this because the vehicle manual tells us that ignoring this light could mean serious damage to our vehicle down the road.

Unfortunately, with dogs we often ignore the many “check engine” signals the dog gives us until everything falls apart. Then we are left trying to decide what happened and can we fix it. If we can’t fix it, then it generally means euthanasia for the dog.

This week I got two phone calls that illustrate this point.

Call #1: A 2 year old cocker spaniel bit a neighbor’s child. The bite did not break skin, but left a bruise. The dog has been growling at non family members for most of the year that the family has owned the dog. But, the dog is great with the family. The bite happened on the family’s front porch as the neighbor child was being invited into the home. The dog charged out the door and when the little girl raised her arm up, the dog leaped up and grabbed it.

Call #2: A six month old mixed-breed puppy is growling and snapping at a 4 year old in the home. The family has had the puppy for four months. They called when the puppy grazed the 4-year-old’s cheek with a tooth and left a scratch. The puppy was fine with the 4 year old for the first month the family said, and then it just started growling “out of nowhere.” The family is afraid of the puppy and it is now living outside.

The woman who called with the cocker spaniel was crying the entire time she spoke with me. She LOVES this dog; however, her husband says the dog has to go. The woman in call number two wants the dog gone because the family thinks the puppy is dangerous.

Once a dog has a bite history, it is difficult to do anything. As a general rule, rescues won’t take dogs that have a bite history. Rehoming the dog could be difficult due to liability issues. And there just aren’t sanctuaries out there waiting to take in the beloved pet that now bites people.

In talking with both people, it was clear to me the dogs in both cases gave lots of early warnings that they were scared and needed some help. Unfortunately, the owners didn’t have the resources they needed to understand the dogs needed help.

The time to reach out to a trainer or behaviorist is when the early warning light comes on. By the time the break down happens it can be much more difficult, if not impossible to help the dog.

Dogs communicate to us constantly. Unfortunately, they aren’t speaking English. They understand us much better than we understand them. Yet it really is fairly easy to begin to understand your dog. It just takes some observational skills. Yes, that means you have to actually LOOK at your dog and see what it is doing. If you learn nothing else, at least learn what your dog looks like when it is relaxed and happy. Where are its ears, its tail, how is it standing on his feet or how is it laying down, what does its face look like? Once you know what your dog looks like relaxed, it will be much easier to know what your dog looks like when he is not relaxed.

Left: This dog is happy. The photographer has been giving him treats. His face is relaxed, his tongue is out.

Let’s picture this. Say you know that when your dog is relaxed his tongue is hanging out, his face is relaxed and when he wags his tail his entire butt moves.  He will look something like the dog above. But when the 4 year old approaches the dog, it closes its mouth, turns its head or wags its tail without the entire butt involved. This is a change in behavior. The dog is no longer as relaxed as he was. The dog is saying “you make me nervous, please don’t come any closer.” If the 4 year old keeps coming, the dog may suddenly turn and sniff its butt, or point its ears back and have its weight distributed so it can flee away from the child. Again the dog is asking the child in the only language it has to stop approaching.

Right: The photographer got too close to the dog. Suddenly he became more nervous, closed his mouth and turned to look away from the photographer. He is saying, “too close, please back up.”

Luckily, most dogs tolerate rude behavior for a long time, but all dogs have a point in which they are just tired of the 4 year old in their face, or the neighbor kids constantly wanting to pet it or strangers coming in and saying “oh, you are so cute I just have to pet you.” To the dog, he has been communicating for a long time to please stop. So, when those early signals are ignored he brings out the growl, the lip curls or the bite.

I love dogs that growl. The growl is all of your car’s warning signal lights coming on at once. If that happened you would sit up and take notice. You wouldn’t just take out the fuses and hope the car keeps running fine. Yet, when a dog growls, most owners get really upset. They yell at the dog for growling. Growling is often the dog’s way of saying, “listen, you are obviously not the brightest dog in the pack, and you have ignored every other signal I’ve given you, so I am going to growl, so sit up and take notice.” If we punish the dog for growling and he needs to say something really important, all we’ve left him with is a bite. And then I get the call from the upset owner wondering why suddenly their loving family dog has bitten someone.

If you notice your dog seems unhappy around new people or nervous around the kids, call a trainer. Don’t wait. Get help before all the warning lights come on.


2 thoughts on “Don’t ignore your dog’s early warning signals

  1. Barbara Slegers-Hudson

    Have you heard of the Yellow Dog Project? It seems it is geared at ‘warning’ dog owners to give distance when meeting another dog who displays signs of anxiety by tying something yellow on the dog’s leash when out on walks…..reasons for ‘giving space’ would be
    – health issues
    – in training
    – being rehabilitated
    – scared or reactive around other dogs.
    Have you had any exposure to this? Is it something that works? I could see a problem being the other dog owners not being aware of the significance of the yellow.


    1. connieswaim

      Sorry it took me so long to get this online. I know of one training school that uses this to great effect and I’ve considered it. My classes tend to be small so it isn’t so much of an issue in class. Horsemen use this as well to tell other riders that a particular horse might not want another horse right on its butt.



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