Sierra Mansfield’s Wednesday began with Starbucks and ended with stitches.
It’s two years ago in mid-August, a month known for its oppressive heat and humidity in Cincinnati. A few blocks away from the University of Cincinnati, Mansfield prepares for her first year of graduate school. It’s her third day in the city, a hillier and more densely populated environment than her hometown of Cortland, Ohio.
Starbucks in hand, Mansfield walks down the front stairs of her apartment and heads toward Kroger, her nearest grocery store. Her companion, a 10-pound yorkie bichon mix named Twinkie, isn’t used to the heat and needs the promise of a chicken nugget upon returning home to get moving.
They walk 40 feet. Another, larger dog, of a breed Mansfield can’t identify, takes notice of Twinkie and proceeds to drag its owner to Mansfield and attack Twinkie. The fight doesn’t last long before Mansfield is able to drag her dog to safety by his leash, but the damage is done — 20 stitches’ worth. As far as Mansfield knows, the other dog doesn’t sustain any significant damage, but she finds out later that its owner had to undergo surgery for a torn rotator cuff because of its relentless pulling.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone in the United States that hasn’t interacted with a dog. Around 63.4 million households in the U.S. own one, according to the National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA) from 2019-2020. Humans discovered thousands of years ago that dogs have the potential to be loving and loyal members of our families but establishing a clear line of communication can make or break that relationship. Many modern dog owners understand that simple truth: Life is easier for both parties if you teach your dog how to understand what you’re communicating. But what about an owners’ understanding of how their dog communicates with its own kind? This information is not as widely known, but, Mansfield acknowledges, it could have made a difference on that fateful day for her and Twinkie.
Understanding dog behavior is a part of responsible dog ownership says Mary Burch, a certified applied animal behaviorist and American Kennel Club Family Dog Program, which is a comprehensive good manners program for dogs, director. While many dog owners don’t “speak dog,” it’s important for them to understand canine body language, Burch says. One of the most important behaviors to know, she adds, are the precursors to aggression, which can include raised hackles (the hair along a dog’s spine), stiff body posture and, in some circumstances, a wagging tail.
As an example, Burch recounts a story from an owner who let a loose German shepherd into her yard to “play” with her toy poodle. “She did not know the shepherd and she could not read body language,” Burch says. “There was no ‘play.’ The German shepherd snatched the poodle and shook him like a rag dog until a neighbor intervened. The poodle lived, but had puncture wounds, needed sutures, was very sore for a long time and an emotional wreck when out in the yard.”
Being able to interpret dog body language can also prevent your dog from getting hurt when in public, Burch says. Two years later, after looking back at the altercation Twinkie experienced, Mansfield admits that she should’ve been able to read the signs her dog was displaying before the fight occurred.
Pat Murphy, a kindergarten teacher at Kennedy Heights Montessori Center in Cincinnati, learned the importance of dog body language at Otto Armleder Dog Park. Murphy and Barkley, her 7-year-old border collie, were visiting the park one sunny weekend, along with nearly 30 other dogs. A fight broke out — someone was throwing a ball to their dog and another intercepted it, causing the first dog to attack. Once the fight started, a number of other dogs in the park began to pile onto the scuffling pair. Barkley ran to Murphy with his ears pinned back and his body lowered. He then scampered behind the bench she was sitting on and hid.
These non-verbal signals were Barkley’s way of communicating his fear and anxiety about the situation that was unfolding in the park, says Karen London, a canine behaviorist and dog trainer based in Flagstaff, Arizona. Barkley and other dogs’ body language used to convey fear, anxiety and submission relates directly to their ancestry, London explains. “They do have a lot of signals that are, because they’re social animals, related to appeasement and inhibition,” she explains. “Anytime you have social animals that are predators and they have weapons, there’s risk they’re going to hurt one another. So, a lot of their communication behavior fits into the category of agonistic behavior, which has to do with resolving conflict.”
London, who has spent 23 years working professionally with dogs, says that dilated pupils, tongue flicking and the retraction of a dog’s commissure (corners of the mouth) are also signs of anxiety or fear.
“One of the times you’ll see [tongue flicking] is if you look at magazines with dogs, especially celebrities’ dogs,” London says. “Usually dogs are afraid of the big giant scary camera and they’re uncomfortable in the situation with the bright lights or just the people around them.”
London says other examples of misinterpreted dog communication in media include the classic “Beware of Dog” signs, which actually depict a fearful dog. The dog, usually a German shepherd or a similar guardian breed, often has its commissure retracted. While the intention of the sign is to convey a watchful guard dog, the image instead, London jokes, suggests a fearful animal that would make a terrible watchdog.
London says it’s critical for dog owners to understand dog body language, especially since it can reveal the unaddressed tension between dogs that live in the same house. For cohabiting canines, walking around the edge of a room or leaning away from and always keeping an eye on the other dog(s) are signs of serious tension and potential aggression.
London watches for signs like these when she is meeting a client’s dog —hints of fear, anxiety, aggression, tension — and so does Jen D’Aurelio, owner of Camp Bow Wow in Highland Heights, Ohio, and manager of Camp Bow Wow in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Between 60 and 70 dogs come to each of her facilities on any given day, but before they are permitted to attend day care, each dog had to complete a social interview.
“Basically, we take the dog on a leash back into one of our empty play yards,” D’Aurelio explains. “And then if it’s a girl dog we’ll bring a boy dog in first for them to meet and, given that that goes okay, we’ll bring a female dog in and, given that that goes okay, we’ll just slowly introduce them to more dogs. And, you know, we’re just constantly watching reactions, making sure that the dog doesn’t get overwhelmed or stressed.”
D’Aurelio and her staff hope to see a “loose” interviewee that looks relaxed and happy. Tension and displays of dominance, like an erect tail and hyper fixation on another dog, are both cues for staff intervention and redirection, she says.
Something important to recognize when learning to decipher dog communication and having your dog interact with members of its own kind is that while your dog may be comfortable, others may not be.
“I think that people really pride themselves on their dogs being social, but just because they’re able to come to Camp Bow Wow and play in a social group does not mean that they’re going to be social in every single possible situation,” D’Aurelio said. “People ask us a lot, ‘My dog loves to play fetch. Why don’t you guys have tennis balls?’ Well, because your dog might like to play fetch, but that other dog might like to own that tennis ball and then when your dog tries to go and get that tennis ball, that’s a problem.”
The resource guarding that D’Aurelio avoids is likely what caused the dog fight that Murphy witnessed. Dogs can act completely different when toys, treats or food are thrown into the mix, and is one example of why controlling the environment and having a grasp of dog communication are important in social situations like dog daycare and dog parks, according to D’Aurelio.
Cherise Justus can relate, as a cane corso breeder and the owner of Sprezzatura Cane Corso in Central Virginia, she currently has seven intact dogs in her home and program, a situation that demands a knowledge of dog body language.
“So, that eye to eye contact that they’ll have that’s a stare off, yeah it’s not good language,” Justus says. “That’s a display of a challenge, you know, and so I don’t allow any of that to go on. Any type of hackles being up, that’s a display of ‘I’m unsure,’ but at the same time ‘I may be willing to absolutely defend myself.’ So, when I see dogs displaying that, I have to cut that off.”
Justus’s parents bred Siberian huskies, so she’s always been around or owned a pack of dogs. With more than 15 years of experience breeding and training large, dominant dogs, she still believes that respecting dogs for the animals they are, along with understanding and establishing effective communication with them as early as possible, are essential to having well-trained and well-behaved dogs.
“We live in a society now where we are being taught to really humanize our animals and it’s very, very unhealthy because dogs are not humans, they’re animals,” Justus says. “I think we can coddle and we can be kind, but we first need to have the communication.”
Learning to recognize dog communication is important to Mansfield now, two years after she had to rush Twinkie to an unfamiliar vet in an unfamiliar city because of two owners’ unfamiliarity with how dogs communicate with one another. She has spent the past two years helping Twinkie become comfortable around other dogs again. Now, the yorkie bichon gets excited when taken to the nearby dog park, where he knows he’ll get to play with his best friend — a Great Dane named Crunch.
To learn more about the silent signals our dogs send us, check out Doggie Language: A Dog Lover’s Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend by Lili Chin. This book is an adorably illustrated guide to better help you understand the subtle visual cues and behaviors your best friend uses to communicate how they’re feeling.
If you would like in person or virtual assistance in learning how to read your dog’s body language, contact CincyPet’s training expert Lisa Destanik of So Much PETential and follow her column on our website and in our magazine as she frequently covers the topic of communicating with your dog.
TAWNEY BEANS is a journalism student at the University of Cincinnati. She has interned at the UC College of Arts & Sciences Marketing and Communications department and the Akron Beacon Journal. She now works as the trending reporter at The News Record, UC’s campus newspaper. In her spare time she enjoys reading and playing with her dog niece, a Labrador mix named Cash.