Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Dog body language - Predicting a bite

Dog's can bite for different reasons. I'd say, the most common being fear. If a frightened dog feels that they have no means of escape, then they will defend themselves with a bite. Of course, dogs may bite because of aggression, possessiveness over a toy or food item, or perhaps by accident during rough and tumble play.

Knowing the signals and signs that a bite might be about to happen is incredibly important for what we do here at the Kennels. Often we find dogs can become nervous and unsure whilst settling in to their new environment, and this can lead them to snap at us when we try to handle them (even though it would be completely out of character at home).

We also like to exercise the dogs together. This involves an assessment of their character. During which we watch how they behave around our own dog, in order to see whether they show any signs of aggression or fear that may render them unsuitable for group play. After this assessment is passed however, we must still watch the dogs closely as they play. Even dogs that pass the assessment may decide they don't like a certain dog, or become possessive over a toy, and so we must constantly be watching them for signs that they are not happy, in order to put a stop to a potential incident before it even happens.

Signs that a bite may happen are:

1.) Stiff body and/or movements
2.) Wide eyes
3.) Sideways glances - whites of eyes showing
4.) Tail up (dominance) or tail tucked (fear)
5.) Growling or snarling, showing teeth
6.) Hackles raised
7.) Trying to get away (fear)

To be honest, making a list is not a sufficient explanation. These signs may only happen for a split second, or be very subtle, and of course in each instance of a fight or bite the context in which it occurs will be different.

I order to better explain what I mean, I have searched for videos that demonstrate how quickly a situation can change from play to aggression. These videos are what I have asked potential employees to watch, and asked them ''Would you stop the dogs playing? and at what point would you stop these dogs playing?'', to see if our answers match, and to reassure myself that they can read dog body language to a sufficient level in order to be in control of the daycare.

There isn't anything traumatic in the videos by the way! Just little flurries and spats.

1.) Ganging up

In this first video, there are three dogs involved. At first, the play is mutual. Two dogs play together nicely. When the third dog becomes involved, the tone of the play changes. It starts to become bullying, and as a result the dog who is being ganged up on starts to become defensive. Had this happened in our daycare, the play would have been halted at around the 21 second mark (and so the fight would not have happened).

After the spat between the dogs, two of them 'square up' to each other. Although in this instance a fight doesn't occur, this sort of body language can rapidly descend into a fight. Note the stiff posture, high tails, hackles raised, and sideways glances.

2.) Over boisterous/dominant play behaviour

This second video, I don't need to explain as it is well annotated and explained throughout (ignore the mention of 'pack theory' at the end). It shows a dog which is not particularly aggressive, simply under socialized and very boisterous.

I WILL say however, that the Rottweiler in the video WOULD NOT pass our assessment and be allowed into the daycare with the other dogs, even on a long line. We would never use our other day care dogs as 'training aids' in order to train or socialize another dog that could potentially hurt them. Even the slightest sign that a dog might bite, is a failure of the daycare assessment.

However, if you feel you have a dog like this, it is essential for them to be socialized and learn their 'doggie manners', and using a long line as explained is a good way to do this. Failure to address the behaviour is eventually going to lead to the dog getting bitten by a frightened playmate. If this happens more than once, your dog may make a transition from being simply boisterous, to actually becoming aggressive.

3.) High level of excitement in a group of dogs

This next video, shows a group of dogs at a 'dog park'. They are excited because a ride on lawnmower is moving next to the fence. There is a German Shepard type dog, that you can see, diving in and nipping at the other dogs. This is common behaviour (particuarly for collies) and we call it 'The Fun Police', because they are trying to control the other dog's behaviour.

In this instance, we would have put a stop to it straight away. That level of high excitement with such a big group of dogs is always going to be dangerous.

If you watch the video further, it descends into chaos. With dogs fighting and others joining in for a sneaky nip. The owners shouting and sticking their arms and hands into the midst of it (we were shaking our heads and tutting loudly at this point). This only demonstrates the owner's lack of control over the dogs, and lack of common sense!

4.) Nice play behaviour interrupted by 'The Fun Police'

This next video shows some nice play behaviour. Yes they are using teeth and wrestling, but they are soft and supple in their bodies and the play is reciprocated on both sides. Then comes the fun police! A third dog runs across and barks at them. Although nothing comes of it, we would have told the 'fun police' to leave them alone to play.

5.) Boisterous play reciprocated

In this next video, the little white fluffy dog starts playing a little over boisterously, but after a short while, despite looking a bit fed up with him at first, the Yorkie decides to give it back and they have some fun together. The Yorkie is a nice little dog and I imagine will gently teach his new playmate some manners if they play together more often.

As you can see, it may not always be obvious when a bite is about to occur. So although working in our Doggie Daycare is a wonderful job, it is not something that anyone could do. It does take a special sort of skill. The ability to read the subtleties of dog body language, assess a situation rapidly, and have full control over fifteen dogs at a time is something quite rare. We also pride ourselves on the strictness of our temperament assessments. Not to mention, that it's important to allow the dogs to play - there is no point of a daycare where the dogs aren't allowed to wrestle and play with each other. So knowing when to stop play, and when NOT to stop play, is very important.

Having skilled staff and a strict policy on temperament in order to take part, means that our daycare is as safe as it can be, whilst also being a fun environment.