In last week’s blog post I talked about why I like warning signs, like growling. Check it out here if you haven’t read it yet. This week, I wanted to address an adjacent topic that often comes up in client sessions in the form of:
Me: “What body language signals did you notice before the bite?”
Pet parent: “There were none! He didn’t growl or show his teeth.”
When I hear this, I usually make a mental note and simply continue with the next question I had planned. Later in the session, we talk about body language signals and I give an example of Oso’s stress signals. That’s usually where the lightbulb moment happens; there are more warning signals and stress signals than just growling or showing teeth.
Just because you didn’t see teeth or hear growling doesn’t mean that the animal didn’t ask you to back off prior to a bite. There are a lot of ways in which animals communicate beyond those two signals. Some signals are intuitive- hackles (fur on the back) raised or tail tucked- but many are not– lip licks and stress yawns. There very well may have been signs that the animal was about to bite, but if we don’t know animal body language we won’t be able to respond appropriately.
Other warning signs
Warning signs are a way for animals to say, “If you don’t stop what you’re doing and/or move away from me I may bite you.” Warning signs aside from growling or showing teeth (which are both not always warning signs!) can include:
- Posturing over an item (putting their body weight over it)
- Corners of the mouth going forward
- Muzzle punch (just as it sounds- punching something with their muzzle)
There are, of course, other signs besides these and there are many, many other signs of stress in general. Check out this blog post about learning body language for more resources.
What should I do if I see warning signs?
For those of you who read last week’s blog post, you know that the answer is to provide relief in the moment. Go away if they’re asking for you to go away. Communication is a good thing, even if we don’t like what’s being said, and is something that will keep us safe. You can then work with a behavior professional on changing the underlying reason why your pet is uncomfortable and thus showing warning signs. If you’re looking for immediate help, check out our “Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics” course.
Remember: don’t punish warning signs. That’s how “bites out of nowhere” can actually happen.
- Learn more about your pets’ body language. All species living in your house communicate through their body language– from you yourself to a dog or cat to my turtle, Zorro. Having a proficient understanding of body language is the first step to being able to work with pets who exhibit maladaptive behaviors.
- Keep a log, either written or in your head, of when you see what signals. What happened before? What happens immediately (I.E. within 3-5 seconds) after? Observe and adjust your environment accordingly to keep your pet feeling more comfortable.
- Contact a behavior professional to help you. It’s much easier to address something when it first starts happening, instead of waiting it out or seeing if they’ll grow out of it (if individuals grew out of fear and anxiety we wouldn’t have human therapists.) We offer immediate help through our “Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics” course in addition to remote consults for pet parents (and professionals!) worldwide.