Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dog Body Language: How to Tell if a Dog is Happy, Frustrated, Scared, Annoyed

By Laurie Luck
This is reposted with permission from the blog by one of our favorite dog trainers, Laurie Luck of Smart Dog University

I don't have the luxury of watching "feel good" segments or programs that contain dogs. Because I "do dogs" for a living, I see all the little signs, the communication signals a dog is sending, and nothing is ever cute anymore, but rather just filled with warning and distress signals from dogs.

Take this morning's "feel good" segment on The Today Show for example. It piqued my interest because it was about a service dog for a little girl who is connected to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day. The family procured a service dog to carry the oxygen tank for the three-year old girl.

The anchors on the show, the parents, and the little girl were oblivious to the many signs from the dog that he wasn't a happy camper. Based on all the publicity Kyle Dyer, NBC anchor in Denver, received when she was bitten on the face by a dog live on the air, I was hopeful that people had started to pay attention to dog body language.

Sadly, I was wrong. Below is the segment. Watch it once without reading the warning signals I've listed below. Then watch it again, looking at the specific minute and second spots.

Some things to know before you take a look at the video. The red bandana is used to cover a prong collar on Mr. Gibbs, the service dog. A prong collar is a collar fitted with special barbs or prongs, that lie against the dog's neck. When pressure is put on the collar by pulling on the leash, those prongs dig into the dog's flesh around his neck. The pain from the prongs are supposed to be a correction to the dog so he won't do whatever it was again.

1:24 - Mr. Gibbs ignores the girl. Girl pulls hard on the leash. Those prongs are now digging into the dog's neck.

2:39 - Girl is pulling Mr. Gibbs with the prong. Pause the video here and you can really see the pulling.

2:42 - Mr. Gibbs tries to go with the trainer (instead of the girl) and he gets a BIG yank from the girl. Do you wonder why the dog doesn't want to be with the girl?

2:56 - The first sign of stress from the dog: a lip lick and a look-away. These are both classic stress signals from a dog.

3:13 - "He gets beat in the head," the little girl says. Apparently she likes to swing a lot, and Mr. Gibbs cannot get out of her way. The father repeats the little girl's sentiment and laughs a little sheepishly.

3:30 - "What do you say to him," the anchor asks. The girl answers "Down!" and "At ease." Both are dog training cues -- not "I love you!" or "Good boy!"

3:32 - Hit pause here. Is this dog looking to interact with the girl? Does he even acknowledge her?

3:34 - Slight "whale eye" from Mr. Gibbs. The whale eye is another sign of stress. This happens when the girl is laying on the dog. The dog has no escape, no say in whether or not he can get out of the situation. This is a recipe for disaster.

4:11 - We're now in the live interview with the anchor, parents, child and Mr. Gibbs. Pause the video at this spot. See the girl tugging on the prong collar? Every tug on the collar brings discomfort to Mr. Gibbs.

4:14 - The girl gives a double-tug on the prong collar, hard.

4:18 Another tug from the girl. The father finally rescues Mr. Gibbs from the daughter's tugs by placing the dog back onto the couch. I wonder why the dog was trying to get down in the first place?

4:54 - Mr. Gibbs looks to the father for help out of the situation.

5:01 - There's a big lip lick and a yawn. Two classic signals that the dog is stressed and would like to leave. He keeps trying to get down off the couch.

5:15 - Another lip lick from Mr. Gibbs. The signals this dog is throwing are increasing.

5:17 - Mr. Gibbs turns his head away from the girl to try to break off contact, but she just gets closer to Mr. Gibbs. He's trying very hard and his patience is admirable.

5:57 - Mr. Gibbs is resigned to his fate.

6:15 - Girl squeals, maybe there's a little bit of a squeeze by her, Mr. Gibbs tries again to get up and leave.

6:20 - Another head turn by Mr. Gibbs -- another attempt to break off contact with the girl, but again she follows.

6:35 - Girl grabs Mr. Gibbs' head, pulls it down, and grabs his eyebrows.

6:41 - Girl grabs Mr. Gibbs' prong collar and pulls off the bandana covering the prong collar.

6:45 - Pause it here and just look at the picture. Is the dog happy about his circumstances?

6:53 - The girl is now pulling the bandana back onto Mr. Gibbs, getting it caught in his mouth.

7:01 - Mr. Gibbs is nearing the end of his attempts to get out of the situation and/or get some relief from this girl from the other people in the room. Finally he lies on the girl as a last ditch effort.

It looks very cute, but in reality, Mr. Gibbs lays on her in resignation -- not enjoyment.

There are reasons why most service dog agencies won't let a young child have a service dog. Unfortunately, this segment highlights the many reasons why. The child is far to young to have the responsibility of caring for a dog, her parents haven't taught her how to kindly interact with a dog, and everyone is ignoring (or doesn't recognize) the dog's many pleas to be removed from the situation.

For more insights from Laurie, read Part 2 of this post.


  1. I'm shocked they would even put a prong collar on a service dog. Therapy dogs aren't allowed to wear them! Clearly, this little girl is far to young for the responsibility of a dog. Apparently her parents don't have a clue what this poor dog is being subjected to. I'd also like to add that prong collars are strictly a training collar, which when used properly, do no harm to the dog. That is not the case here.

    1. This is horrible. I am very surprised this dog didn't go into bite mode. He has a lot more patience than I would have had. I have a service dog and a prong collar is not permitted. Prong collars are not training collars. I defy anyone that thinks they are OK to use to put it on themselves and let someone else pull the leash. They are positive puinishment and have no business being sold. That poor dog should be removed from that family and put with someone that would really appreciate having him.

  2. Body Language is a form of communication where a person’s mannerisms and composure communicates emotion and thoughts. The human body and its ability to communicate contain a vast amount of information ranging from a person’s confidence level to their interest in a person sexually. The roots of this tool come from built in instincts and human tribal experience.