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Dog Body Language & Socialization

Introduction: Wolf Packs and Garbage Eaters 


Writing about dog socialization is a bit tricky, because people love to tell stories about how dogs relate to each other. Once upon a time, the main story was that dogs’ social skills were primarily linked to wolf pack dynamics, and now every suburban household with 2 dogs and 3 kids is filled with Alphas and not-Alphas. (Hello, Cesar Millan!) But it is now largely believed that Alpha theory in wolves has been debunked, which makes alpha theory also irrelevant for our furry friends. Ray Coppinger popularized to the Western world that dogs actually domesticated themselves, basically by scavenging our garbage, and that viewing dogs through the lens of being primarily scavengers is the most accurate and productive perspective.


Now, think about all the dogs in your life. Do they live in an apartment downtown? Do they sit in an air conditioned house except for their leashed walk to the quaint park a few blocks away? Do they sit in an empty backyard and bark all day? 


And were these dogs “rescued” and imported from village streets, or have they been bred for decades in America? Did they roam freely as a pup, or did they grow up in a cage at a puppy mill? 


I prefer to not get too caught up in the evolution and mythology of dogs. I say, “Free your mind from the chains of guessing ancient origins stories, and look at the dog that’s right in front of you!” Look at their actual real life. I think that people tend to do a much better job as guardians and handlers that way. 


So that was basically a disclaimer for this information about dog body language and play, since Alpha Theory still lingers in doggy pop culture. If you’ve got dominance and wolf packs on the brain, I ask you to put those abstract ideas on a shelf in your mind as you look at the following information. And I hope that that helps you better make sense of what your dog is actually doing while interacting with other dogs. 



Dog Sociability 


First, let’s think about the concept of what is “normal” for dog sociability. I’ll be both blunt and brief and then let these beautiful images take it away: The idea that most dogs should be able to go into a dog park and “work it out” is insane and dangerous. And when clients believe that their dog shouldn’t communicate discomfort in social situations with other dogs, this tends to be deeply problematic. 




Calming Signals


Turid Rugaas popularized the idea of “calming signals,” which can be defined as subtle (to the human eye!) communication from dogs that functions to de-escalate a stressful situation. You will sometimes see these behaviors referred to as “appeasement gestures” or “displacement behavior,” too, depending on the scenario and who is describing it. 


These signals can be used to calm play down. They can also be used in an attempt to avoid interactions entirely. You have to look at the whole picture to understand what exactly the dog is trying to say, and thus certain signals will carry different meanings with different individuals: 


“No thank you.”

“NO!”

“Softer please.” 

“I want to interact with you, but not like that.” 

“I am having a lot of feelings.” 

“I need to calm down.”

“I want you to know I’m not a threat.” 

And more! 


Here is a list of potential calming signals: 

  • Turning away

  • Yawning

  • Lip licking

  • Sniffing 

  • Freezing

  • Stretching

  • Sitting down

  • Lifted paw

  • Urinating



Here is a video example of some calming signals from Cupid to Mars. And here you can watch the same video but with the second run labeled with the calming signals. Do you see anything interesting besides what I labeled?






The Defensive Staircase or Ladder


The defensive ladder is not a perfect metaphor, but it is helpful to think about the concept of escalation when considering defensive behavior. Some dogs escalate defensive behavior very quickly, while others may skip many steps of the ladder altogether. Dogs who are frequently ignored when they softly express "no" may learn to vocalize their objections more loudly instead. (Through training, we can often reverse this pattern by reinforcing quieter "no's" once again.)






Healthy Play 


Healthy play looks different between different dogs, but once you start to study their behavior, you will start to see some common themes.


I personally define social play as a consensual invasion of boundaries & space between two or more dogs. Remember that the “healthy” and “consensual” parts of the equation are just our human interpretations. But when I’m assessing for nice play, I’m generally looking for the following: 


  • Loose and wiggly 

  • “Popcorn movements” or otherwise bouncy, inefficient movement  

  • Trading roles (“I chase you and then you chase me”) 

  • Self-handicapping (e.g. bowing or lying down)

  • Mouth wrestling with inhibited grip

  • Body wrestling (muzzle punch, hip check, shoulder check) with inhibited force

  • ***Most important!*** “Check ins” and pauses to regular emotions and maintain, “We are just playing” 



An adult dogs self-handicaps for a puppy. Both dogs use visibly inhibited grip for mouth wrestling.


Healthy Play Video Examples






Arousal 


A big factor of play (and dog behavior in general) is “arousal.” Arousal, or excitement, is neither inherently good or bad. If the dog is not aroused to some extent, it is not alive!


However, as arousal increases during play, different parts of the brain activate, and dogs are more likely to become defensive, predatory, rude, etc. Signs of over-arousal during play depend on the individual but include: Increased vocalization, harder/longer gripping on skin, faster movement, clacking jaws, curled lips, and not taking micro-pauses or big breaks during play. 



Intimacy and Relationships 


Dogs who have established relationships with each other may engage in more intimate play, sometimes involving higher levels of arousal without any negative consequences. This is because, as the dogs become acquainted, they learn each other's preferences and boundaries, adjusting their behavior accordingly. It's for this reason that I always emphasize the importance of allowing dogs to bond with each other, particularly if they're socially awkward or facing difficulties in socializing for any reason.



Managing & Changing Play Behavior 


These are my favorite techniques for managing play behavior: 


  • Paying attention

  • Being a presence (as opposed to staying on the sidelines) 

  • Walk around to elicit movement and thus pauses/breaks during play

  • Vocally prompt the dogs to elicit movement and thus pauses/breaks during play

  • Walk in between dogs to elicit movements and thus pauses/breaks during play

  • Time outs for overarousal or inappropriate play behavior (both dogs on leash, walk out of the dog park, or put a dog in a crate, etc.) 

  • Back up dogs calming signals by ensuring the more forward dog gives them space 

  • Minimize crowding or other potential resource guarding triggers

  • Consent tests (see video below) 





(See the bottom section of this article for techniques for fight protocol etc.)



Unhealthy & Potentially Dangerous Interactions 


There are many reasons that dog pairings and introductions can be questionable at best or dangerous at worst:


  • Dog is too rough

  • Dog ignores calming signal from other dogs/won’t take breaks 

  • Dog ignores corrections from other dogs

  • Dog is persistently avoidant and unable to take breaks 

  • Dog is being targeted in a group (stalked, humped, otherwise harassed) 

  • Dog is targeting another dog in a group (“ “) 

  • And more… 



Watch this video of Mars and Eden. Both of these dogs have enough social finesse and self control that the interaction is not dangerous - but such an interaction could easily turn dangerous with a different pair of dogs.


First we see Eden showing appropriate play behavior - bouncy, loose movements and inhibited hip/shoulder checks with Mars. Mars is stiff and rough with Eden, and Eden begins to move away and reciprocate less. He possibly feels nervous, even though Mars is smaller than him. Mars escalates to stiffer body language and directs her head at his shoulders, then attempts to mount/hump him (both very invasive and thus definitely a red flag in this scenario since Eden is not reciprocating). Eden runs completely away to escape her. 





And more dangerous still are these factors in dog introductions: 


  • Unknown social history

  • Strong predatory or combative instincts 

  • Severe fear or anxiety (can lead to defensive behavior or elicit predation from other dogs)

  • Fast defensive escalation 

  • Low bite inhibition/oral self control 

  • Strong grip & instinct to not let go with the mouth when stressed

  • Size difference

  • Resource guarding 

  • And more…



Introducing Dogs


If a dog-dog introduction is deemed questionable for any reason, such as over-excitement or fear, my focus shifts to techniques that promote calm even before the dogs interact. This approach works particularly well for dogs with a history of training and engagement with the handler, although it's not universally applicable. In some cases, swiftly transitioning to off-leash time can reduce frustration and facilitate healthier interaction. If you're uncertain or feel you need assistance, I highly recommend seeking guidance from a professional.


  • Start out introducing the two dogs on neutral territory.

  • Start out at a distance with both dogs on leash, and practice having the dogs looking at the other and looking back at the handler for a food reward. (This method may be difficult with a dog who has little experience with distraction training.) Example video here.

  • Go for a side-by-side walk together, without the dogs directly interacting, slowly decreasing the distance between the dogs. So maybe they start out across the street from one another, and then slowly one person is walking in the street. 

  • Have the dogs do short greetings on leash where they get to briefly sniff the other dog and then return to the handler for treats. Keep the leash slack while the dogs sniff; pulling back on the dog can actually trigger aggression, as the physical restraint is frustrating. (This is not a good idea for a dog who is very leash reactive.) Example video here.

  • During actual off-leash play, keep a leash dragging on both dogs, or maybe just the dog who tends to be overly rough/excited.

  • Implement frequent breaks where the dogs are separated and fed treats. Use leashes if necessary. Use space if necessary, as opposed to trying to make the dogs eat right next to each other while they're still excited.

  • Use the above resources and information to ensure that the interactions are healthy and safe. 




Other Safety Resources 


Dealing with Unwanted Encounters & Fight Protocol




More Safety and Fight Protocol Info





In Conclusion 


One could probably write books and books on dog socialization, so please understand the challenge of limiting this information to an appropriate article length. If you have questions or need help, I am available both virtually and in the Chicagoland area to work with you and your pup.


Additionally, I have a seminar version of this information that I am available to present live or virtually to kennels, training groups, etc. Please reach out if you are interested! 


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