The dirty words of dog behavior
You were let go from a job rather than fired. A loved one passed away, they didn't die. You purchased a pre-owned vehicle, not a used car. We use euphemisms like these all the time. An innocuous word or phrase to take the place of an unpleasant one. A milder version of something spicy.
We do this because unpleasant things can be hard to talk about, or even think about. Using euphemisms is often about self-preservation. If I don't speak of the unpleasantness, it must not exist. Even if we aren't consciously making this decision, I suspect our brains are trying to protect us anyway.
"Our pet dogs are predators with sharp teeth and bone-crushing jaws."
I often hear well-meaning guardians who love their dogs describe behaviors using euphemisms. I suspect this happens for similar reasons. We adore our dogs. They are family members. Some of us call them fur babies. But, our pet dogs are also predators with sharp teeth and bone-crushing jaws. This means that some of their behaviors can be unpleasant. Scratch that mild euphemism – some of their behaviors can be terrifying.
Dogs bite. Period.
It's the dirtiest of the dirty dog words. Bite. Dogs bite. I'll say it again. Dogs bite. Your dog can bite. Your dog might bite. My dog did bite! Every dog has the potential to bite.
"He nips my daughter's leg when she walks past him."
"She mouths my hand when I put on the harness."
"He snaps at me when I take his bone, just some tooth-scratches though."
Each of these statements describes a bite. Don't let the words "nips," "mouths," and "snaps" fool you. These are bites. They might not be injurious bites, or painful bites, or even scary bites. But, make no mistake about it, they are bites. Now, this doesn't mean the biting dog is bad or dangerous or vicious. It means that this dog is a dog. Because dogs bite.
Afraid of being afraid
"Bite" isn't the only dirty dog word that gets watered down with agreeable euphemisms. We are sometimes afraid to acknowledge fear in our dogs.
"She gets a little reserved with new people."
"He's just shy around strangers."
"She's totally fine with people, just overwhelmed."
Each of these statements describes fear. Don't let the words "reserved," "shy," and "overwhelmed" fool you. These are dogs who are fearful around people they don't know. Some of them might be mildly worried. Others might be down right terrified. A wide range of dog behaviors might indicate fear, including – yep, you guessed it – a bite. A dog who isn't trembling, tucking his tail, or biting might still be very, very afraid. We don't help our dogs by down-playing their bona fide fears.
"A dog who isn't trembling, tucking his tail, or biting might still be very, very afraid."
Let's say you are afraid spiders. Can you imagine living in a world where no matter where you go, or what you do, you are constantly bombarded by 20-foot-tall spiders walking around? Maybe you'd grow accustomed to your terrifying reality, but you'd still be terrified. I imagine that's how some dogs feel living in our world where unfamiliar people are rampant.
How to help our dogs
To help our dogs, there are two things we can start immediately. The first is to acknowledge and say out loud what is actually happening. Fear is happening. Bites are happening. It's OK to say these words. Sugar-coating our own language only delays helping our dogs.
"A bite is often a last resort after subtle pleas for help are missed."
The second task is to learn their language. Our dogs speak to us all the time. Eyes, ears, tail, head, stance, movement, teeth. A bite is often a last resort after subtle pleas for help are missed. A solid understanding of canine body language, especially the early signs of stress, is critical for addressing fear and bite prevention. To start learning how to "speak dog," check out these resources.
Dog Body Language 101 video from Fear Free Happy Homes
Doggie Language book by Lili Chin
iSpeakDog body language gallery
How Can I Tell If My Dog Is Afraid? blog by Zazie Todd, PhD