Thinking About Dogs' Behavior Like a Stoplight ... and Other Things We Learned from a Trainer

Thinking About Dogs' Behavior Like a Stoplight ... and Other Things We Learned from a Trainer

There are signs that indicate your dog is not feeling comfortable.

By Morgan Ashley Parker

Tonight’s episode of Don’t Be Tardy featured April’s incident where Kash was bitten by one of the family’s dogs and had to be rushed to the hospital. We’re so happy the five-year-old is OK — and that the Biermann family continues to foster their kids’ love of dogs.

As animal lovers and owners, the situation got us thinking a bit more about pets and their behaviors and, as good journalists, we decided to seek out an expert to educate ourselves … and you, too!

"Most aggression in dogs we can safely guess comes from fear. They’re going to use whatever they can to put distance between them and what they’re scared of," explains Annie Grossman, dog trainer and co-owner at NYC’s School for the Dogs. Dog aggression can often start because of something known as "trigger stacking” which is when you have one stressful situation, then something stressful happens on top of that, and then something else happens. 

It helps to think about dog’s behavior like a stoplight. Most dogs don’t go from green (good behavior) immediately into red (bad behavior). "Most dogs have a long yellow light,” Grossman says.

There are often signs that indicate your dog is not feeling comfortable in some way. As dogs still (unfortunately) can’t speak to us using words, we can look for something called "displacement behaviors” which are ways they are trying to chill themselves out (we think). Grossman adds, "there’s not necessarily a reason for it [just that] the energy has to go somewhere."

If you think about those two concepts together and relate them to human situations: Imagine you’ve stayed up all night to finish a presentation that had been stressing you out because you also hate public speaking. Then, minutes before it was time for you to present, your computer crashes and you lose all your work. Those are examples of stacked triggers and a displacement behavior would be if you then punched a hole in the wall. Thinking about it hypothetically, there’s not necessarily an obvious explanation for why you chose to punch a wall …  but it still could happen. 

Similar things can happen then with dogs, and resulting dog bites. "There are a handful of stress signals almost every dog exhibits to some degree. If you see them showing it a lot or in succession, it's a good idea to get the dog out of the situation,” Grossman explains. 

Though you may not know in advance what to look for, “people are often better than they realize in recognizing these signs. The signs can be an indicator when something is ‘off,' if your dog hears a weird noise, or if he just feels uncomfortable in a situation.” Plus, keep in mind that children move more unpredictably than adults, they often make loud sounds that can be interpreted in any number of ways by an animal, and they’re often closer in size to the dog itself. 

Even if you misdiagnose the situation, it’s better to be aware and start looking for these signs, even if your dog is not getting triggered to the point of aggression. For example, displacement behaviors include a dog shaking off as if he’s wet (when he’s not wet), licking his lip as if he was trying to lick off a milk mustache, lifting up one leg (as if three legs are fine but just one leg is ‘unsure’), or doing something called half-moon or whale eye which is when a dog is holding himself very still and just moving his half-lidded eyes, almost as if he’s trying to make himself as invisible as possible. Some of these signs are more subtle and easier to miss as displacement behaviors can also include if your dog suddenly starts scratching his ear with his back leg or even yawning. 

When you see a dog exhibiting these behaviors, there’s a good chance that he is being triggered in some way and, if these reactions continue, it’s safe to assume that these triggers are now adding up. Grossman’s advice is to recognize those signs in your own dog, and if there is something that triggers a dog into exhibiting one of those displacement behaviors — or a more intense reaction like a bite — then it’s about addressing that situation in a way that addresses the dog’s fear.

For example, if your dog is triggered by loud sounds, the best thing you can do is create good associations. This helps control that situation and decreases the chance the dog is going to use his mouth on someone. So, when a dog is scared by something like a leaf blower or vacuum cleaner, turn it on and immediately give him a treat. Turn it off and give him a treat. "Give treats to the dog before putting demands on their behavior … think first about how the dog is feeling, usually if they are feeling OK about something they are not going to be exhibiting the behaviors that we label as ‘bad' as those are coming from fear. Get the dog to know if the leaf blower is on, it's [essentially] raining treats and, at the very least at that point, then there is something in the dog’s mouth.” 

It’s also important to know that seeing these displacement behaviors is actually a good thing. Grossman explains that these responses are how they tell other dogs ‘hey, back off.’ "[They] let dogs live in the yellow light zone rather than going straight from fine to not fine."

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