Subtle Signals that Speak Volumes: Observe Your Baby and Dog!

Guest Author: Jennifer Shryock B.A. CDBC who teaches parents how to introduce their new baby to the dog in the family. See her blog and her website.

I remember the first time I saw Jan present the HUG program. I immediately thought that what she was educating about babies was so similar to what I educate families about dogs. It was all about observation, connecting and learning how to respond most effectively.

Just like babies, dogs offer signals and behaviors that give us a glimpse of how they are handling stimulating situations or stressful encounters. Learning about subtle dog communications is very much similar to learning to observe S.O.S.

Families with dogs and children can help increase safety by becoming familiar with some of the subtle ways dogs let us know they are stressed or experiencing conflict. Here are a few examples of such signals that I did not recognize many years ago when my teens were babies.

Licking lips or tongue flicking often happens as a distance increasing behavior or when crowded. The difference between this and “licking chops” is that the dog has not been eating nor is there food around. Usually this signal is offered with a head turn away from the stressful situation.
This signal is fast and many never see this first indicator of discomfort or stress. Observe how your dog uses this signal. Notice when and what is happening when you observe this. That will help you learn how your dog communicates and you will be able to better respond.

Jan talks about “spacing out” and “switching off” I discuss how dogs sniff and scratch in the same way. Dogs will suddenly be sniffing or scratching for no reason other than to “shut out” or “switch off” from the stimulation that is causing discomfort or conflict. This is very commonly seen around toddlers and often a signal parents do not observe. Just as parents can observe changes in babies color, movement and breathing patterns they can learn to observe the subtle changes in their dog’s ears, eyes, tails and muzzles. This type of observation is the key to prevention and success in homes with kids and dogs. Sadly many families wait until they have experienced a growl or worse yet a bite. Dogs offer many signals prior to escalating or resorting to a growl or bite.

These are just a few examples of the many subtle signals dogs offer when stressed. Like babies, dogs bodies tell us what is happening and how they are coping with different situations. This allows us an opportunity to decrease stimulation and offer support so that our dogs can be successfully included in their growing families.
I encourage all expectant and new families to take some time and learn about dog body language and communication so that they can understand and safely include their companions as their families grow.
HUG Your Baby 2011