Canine Warning Signs

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

Just as every human is unique, every dog is unique, we each thrive in some situations, but struggle in others.

Many of us adopt dogs with unknown pasts that can lead to seemingly “out of the blue” behaviors under certain circumstances. It always hurts my heart to hear that a dog is surrendered, rehomed, or even euthanized because of aggressive behavior – early identification of behaviors that signal discomfort can help us head-off potentially aggressive behavior.  

Of course, before bringing a dog into your home, you should do your due diligence to make sure that your home is appropriate for the dog’s temperament, but issues can arise well after initial adoption. Let’s take a look at some behavior warning signs and how we can deal with them before real aggression begins.

First of all, it is important to understand that aggression is often a defense mechanism. Our dogs can’t tell us with words if they are hurting, anxious, or uncomfortable so if we don’t pick up on their signals, aggressive behavior can seem like it comes without a warning.

Warning signs that all is not well with your dog:

  • Changes in body position- you know how your dog holds their ears and tail, how much white usually shows in their eyes, and how much of their teeth and gums are typically visible. Changes to any of these body positions are a good indicator that something isn’t right! Some of these signals are acute and some develop over time. For example, a drooping tail could mean an unnoticed injury or illness, while eyes showing more white than usual might be a fear response to an unknown visitor like a child who could pull hair or a man with a booming voice.
  • Out-of-character behavior- if your dog is suddenly shaking, yawning, licking in excess, or biting themselves, these are sure signs your dog is uncomfortable. Sometimes all it takes is stepping back and thinking about how the dog’s situation may have changed. Are there new people or pets in the home? Have you changed your routine? Are the people in your home under more stress than usual? As dogs become part of our families they pick up on the many obvious and not-so-obvious changes that affect our households.
  • Obvious waring signs- growling, snarling, and excessive barking are obvious warning signs that can lead to more serious aggression. Reprimanding for these behaviors may seem like the correct approach, but this can cause a dog to go from zero to ten in the future without ever displaying a warning. When your dog shows this kind of behavior, it is best to immediately change the situation to mitigate the behavior, then consider some of the following points.

How to address warning signs:

  • Make sure your dog is healthy- proper veterinary care is critical to ensuring your dog is comfortable. Untreated pain from illness or injury can cause even the kindest of dogs to react aggressively.
  • Training- most of us engage in dog-training when we first bring a new dog home, but there is never anything wrong with a refresher course. Professional dog trainers can often help identify and mitigate issues your dog is having.
  • Exercise and stimulation- a bored dog easily becomes an anxious dog, and an anxious dog is more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors. Appropriate toys and plenty of exercise can reduce stress and help dogs be their best.
  • A safe place- this is one of the most important things. All dogs should have a safe place, like a crate, where they can go if they are uncomfortable. Without this option, dogs are often stuck in uncomfortable situations which can cause them to turn to aggression. Family members and guests should be taught to respect the dog’s “safe place”. 

In conclusion, I hope these tips are helpful to you and your furry friends!