Teach me how to speak dog
June 5, 2012 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand dogs.

Dogs (pitbulls) have suddenly become part of my daily life. My neighbors have them and my coworkers have them. I like dogs, but sometimes they confuse me. I didn't grow up around them, so I don't know how to treat them or interpret their behavior. I don't know how to play with them and I don't know how to be firm with them.

Could you recommend some resources (sites, videos, books) that would teach more me more about dog behavior and how I should behave around them?

For instance, what does it mean if they are growling at you AND wagging their tails?

If a dog nips at you when you are playing with it, what do you do? I usually go limp and stop playing, but I don't know if there's a better way to handle it.

If two large dogs are fighting, what do you do? I'm 5'3'' and female, if it matters.
posted by rhythm and booze to Pets & Animals (40 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up with dogs and feel fairly comfortable around them. If two large dogs are fighting, you don't do anything. You let them fight, or you risk being bitten.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:12 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Growling is a bad sign, the dog is warning you, listen to it and leave.
2. If it is a puppy nip I tend to yelp like I was a hurt dog and it seems to work well, it sort of mirrors what dogs do when they play. Older dogs I tend to give a more forceful no and stop playing immediately.
3. Unless they are your dogs, get out of the area and call the police or animal control.

Each dog is sort of individual, but in general, treat them with respect (don't run up and pet strange dogs, etc), and let them show you what they want you to do, or ask their owners, that's usually your best bet.
posted by katers890 at 9:16 AM on June 5, 2012

I am far from an expert but I recently had to learn a little bit about dogs, and pitbulls. But if others have info that comes from more experience I'd welcome correction on these points.

What I understand is, dogs are rewarded with affection and/or food. If they get affection and/or food for doing something, they'll think that thing is okay. If you ignore them, then they'll learn that that thing is not okay. My former pitmix-roommate would jump up on us sometimes and we'd just go silent and dead and turn our backs to him.

Most dogs need to be taught what to do, because they're pack animals and take cues from a leader. It's your job to be the leader, so by being firm and consistent you're helping the dog.
posted by entropone at 9:17 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am by no means an expert but I grew up with dogs and it's worth noting that pitbulls are something of a special case. The nature of pitbulls has been discussed previously on mefi.

Also seconding katers890's advice.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:27 AM on June 5, 2012

Watch Animal Planet on cable if you have it. Here's there website if you don't. There are all kinds of shows about dogs there. Animal Cops isn't about dogs specifically, but can give insight about animals in general, warning, it's a bit graphic Also, you can watch the Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel (even if people have strong feelings about Cesar Milan, he's still a wealth of information about dogs).

I've learned A LOT watching these shows and just doing general research on teh interwebs. For example, growling is not always a bad sign, it totally depends on the situation and the body language. You have to educate yourself. Good luck.
posted by patheral at 9:29 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ceasar Milan has a good book - forget the name of it, but if you search for him on amazon, I'm sure you'll find it.

Some direct feedback, though;

Growling and wagging tail. there is a lot more going on to just figure out what they are doing here. But growling typically is aggression, so you want to wait to approach, and don't acknowledge/look them in the eyes.

People say 'oh, his tail is wagging, must be happy!' But really, it just means that the dog is relaxed - not calm relaxed, but comfortable in their surroundings. They can still be in a defensive mode.

Dogs nipping while playing - depends again. Are they a puppy? And 'nipping' is part of normal dog play, but you have to know if it is aggressive biting versus just mouthing. Older dogs or even older puppies should have learned that teeth are bad, and 'mouthing' is more play-ish (no teeth - light, if any, pressure). Puppies nip, and haven't learned how strong or soft to bite. Also, their baby teeth are much sharper, so you have to be more careful with that.

If they nip in any case, and it's got any teeth in it, then yes, disengaging is the right thing to do. Don't go limp, don't pull your hand away fast (as a quick 'away' movement always draws a dog to grab in reaction). You want to firmly say "No", calmly disengage and stand up, and either ignore the dog until they calm down or walk away.

Dogs fighting - you leave them alone. they may be fighting, or they may be playing. dogs that know eachother and are typically friendly will 'play' and it's usually a dominance game. So unless you are well known to the dogs and know them and their personalities very well, stay out of it.
posted by rich at 9:32 AM on June 5, 2012

My preferred means of playing with larger dogs is fetch, because you're not really playing power-struggle that way. With dogs you've come to know well, they will teach you what they think is fun.

There's a lot of combinations of vocalization+body language. If a dog is "bowing" to you, with front end down and back end up, that's an invitation to play. Some dogs growl, hum, or bark while they do it, and it's generally not meant to be threatening (or very specifically is meant to be fake-threatening, the way puppies do to each other), but that doesn't mean you have to allow it.*

*I have a dog who snarls because she has really narrow nasal passages. It sounds horrible, but it happens any time she inhales more forcefully than a normal breath. I'm not going to correct her for it, but I do cringe so hard when strangers hear it.

Walk away if dogs are fighting. You want to do something, but you can't, and most of the time they will work it out eventually. We've had fighting problems with our dogs, who don't obey normal dog rules with regard to working it out, and all we can do is station ourselves where we might be able to close a door or gate to separate them.

I think old Dog Whisperer episodes are available on Hulu or Netflix, but he doesn't really advocate playing with dogs, so you won't see much of that aspect there. There's a lot about dog leadership, though, which will be very helpful to you.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:33 AM on June 5, 2012

Dogs are pretty binary in that they understand being either the boss or the subordinate. Most dogs - and all well-trained pet dogs - are happy to be the subordinate. If these dogs are already someone's good pets they are already tuned in, more or less, to a human being the boss. As long as you're firm, gentle, and consistent you shouldn't have any problems. (IMPORTANT: Strange dogs are a whole 'nother story.)

To "read" a dog, you have to take in the whole picture. How are they holding their tail and ears? Are they staring? Growling? What's their overall posture? (BTW, dogs can certainly growl while they're playing. It doesn't always mean they are mad.)

You'll figure it out. Respect is the key. For instance, you probably don't like being stared at. Dogs hate it, too; a lot of dogs will take it as a challenge if you stare at them.

I second watching Dog Whisperer.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:36 AM on June 5, 2012

Seconding Caesar Milan. Some people take issue with his sort of power-play methods, but I think these people have a profound misunderstanding of the nature of a pack animal versus a social animal and have probably never handles large dogs. I did grow up around dogs, and have always "understood" them, but watching his show helped me codify what until then had been functional intuition about dogs.

The most general tip I know is that you need to know that you're in charge. If you're unsure that you're the boss, then the dog will know and likely decide it has a good shot at being the boss itself, which can manifest in ways ranging from not coming when it's called to biting your face off. This is extra important with pitbulls because, yes, they tend to be very loyal dogs that are receptive to a good human being its leader, but when a pitbull does bite it has the equipment to do massive damage even more so than most dogs.
posted by cmoj at 9:43 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

When the dog is growling and wagging its tail, is the tail very stiff and wagging pretty much only at the end? Or is the dog wagging its whole tail, pretty flexibly, and maybe the but is wiggling too? Pit bulls are notorious wiggle butts when they're happy.

Stiff tail, whether wagging, held out straight, or curled: ready for aggression or defense. You should back away.

Growling: True growling is almost always aggression or defensive warning. The only exceptions you need to know about are dogs you know very, VERY well. (Some dogs "talk" in what sounds like a growl.)

Nipping during play: Say no, turn your back, stop play, ignore the dog. Do not give treats in order to distract, because that's rewarding the nipping.

Fighting dogs: Other people already said it. Unless they are your dogs, call someone else for help. It doesn't sound like you have dogs, and you're pretty new to them, so you shouldn't be worrying about breaking them up.

Pit bulls: Individuals within breeds do vary. But pit bulls were historically bred to fight each other and therefore to be dog-aggressive, much in the same way labradors were bred to bring ducks in from water. This does not always, or even usually, extend to being people-aggressive. But sometimes, with neglect and no/poor/harmful training, general aggression is present (in ALL dogs, but right now we're just talking about pitties).

Good behavior for non dog-owning humans around dogs:

Don't stare down a dog. Eye contact can be challenging.
Don't tease a dog with food or toys.
Don't take food or toys from a dog.
Don't try to make a dog do something or go somewhere by holding its collar.
Issue a command such as "sit" only one time. The more you repeat it, the less import it carries.
Don't yell at a dog.

Don't kiss a dog that's not yours or that you don't know very, VERY well, and don't ask a dog to "kiss" you. It's not a gesture of affection for a dog; your face near his face may be threatening.

In general, it's easier and more effective to tell a dog what you want it to do instead of seeing a bad behavior and telling it no.


"Sit." (For me to leash you so we can go out, or so I can put your food bowl down, or so I know you're ready to cross the street.) Instead of the dog jumping around and you shouting "nonononoNONOJUMPINGSTOPIT!"
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 9:50 AM on June 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

Ignorance is your best tool. If a dog does something you don't want it to the best option is to ignore it completely. Wait until it has been acting as you want it to for a minute or two, and then give it attention again.

If a dog bites you, the best response is to let out a yelp that says "Your playing has gone too far" and then withdraw and ignore. This is the pack response. Puppies play until they have gone to far. The quality of your yelp might need tweaking to really get a response.

Dogs are different and a bark and tail wag might mean completely different things. Watch for the dogs body language, its stance towards you. If it has a threatened or threatening stance, shout "No!" loudly at it and then ignore.

as cmoj says, you are in charge. Don't let this slip, ever...
posted by 0bvious at 9:51 AM on June 5, 2012

The Other End of the Leash
The Culture Clash
Dog Sense

Are three great books on dog behavior.
posted by ephemerista at 9:53 AM on June 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

You should check out Patricia McConnell, both her blog The Other End of the Leash and the book by the same name. I fall firmly in the anti-Ceasar camp, largely because the dominance method has been soundly rejected by most dog trainers. Not everything he says is wrong, but be extremely careful when applying his advice, and please be sure to read about the cons of his approach and the benefits of positive reinforcement.
posted by syanna at 9:54 AM on June 5, 2012 [9 favorites]

I would say it depends on the dog breed. I really only know shelties (Shetland Sheepdogs) which are tiny have very different temperments from pitbulls.

Shelties will often play growl - what Obvious calls "talk" growl at you if you're playing with them and I don't believe it's agressive at all. It sounds VERY different from a warning growl, there's no way I would mistake them.

I loved to lie on the floor in front of my sheltie and play silly games with him - like he would make a play pose with his paws in front. I would cover one of his paws gently with my hand and he would growl away (while also swishing his tail like crazy) and pull his paw out and try to cover my hand with his paw. We would go back and forth a while like that. Our little game undoubtedly had its roots in dominance play that dogs do.

I was very careful about otherwise establishing dominance with him & was careful that he always obeyed me. Given that, I just enjoyed playing with him - shelties are such goofballs and rousing around with them is so enjoyable.

There are very few times I've heard a sheltie do a warning growl, and the tone is very different and pretty unmistakable.

My favorite dog book is Bones Would Rain From the Sky - awesome, magical book about bonding with your dog and establishing dominance from that bond.
posted by lyra4 at 9:55 AM on June 5, 2012

Dog Sense: How The New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet by John Bradshaw may be of some use to you. But in general, it helps to project what Cesar Millan terms "calm-assertive energy" at all times around dogs you don't know very well. Don't feel obligated to play with dogs if you feel a bit uncertain, and take your time in getting to know them. Chat with the owners about their pets' behaviours--they'll probably appreciate your efforts, and most dog owners (including myself) LOVE to talk about their furbabies.

There's a lot of great advice in this thread, but I also think that dogs reflect on their owners, and a badly brought up and poorly socialized dog will be immune to everything that's mentioned so far unless you're an experienced dog handler-whisperer. I hope your friends and neighbours belong to the category of awesome, responsible pitbull owners! The sweetest, gentlest dogs I've met on the streets have been pitbulls, while the little toy breeds are often the worst behaved.
posted by peripathetic at 9:58 AM on June 5, 2012

Dogs are as good as their human companions. Pit Bulls are different from other domesticated dogs. They are lovely, and sweet, but they have been bred to be aggressive, both to other dogs and to people.

No Pit Bull owner should be complaicent. All dogs should be on a leash or behind a fence on his property, but Pit Bulls especially so.

Don't approach strange dogs without their people around. Let a dog smell you and get to know you before you start touching him.

Be calm, be in charge. You are the human, they are the dogs.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:03 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

A test was done in which a dog was put alone in a room with a steak in a doggie bowl. As he approached the steak, one of 4 recorded growls would play:

1. A growl recorded during play.
2. A growl recorded during a dog fight.
3. A growl recorded when a stranger approached.
4. A growl recorded when a strange dog approached the growler's food bowl.

Only when the test dog heard #4 did they pause on the way to the food. Researchers were unable to differentiate these growls, for the most part.

Lesson: dogs have a much more nuanced communication than we can detect. Growls are often not hostile, and we must look beyond single-signs for a more whole-context understanding of what the dog is really saying.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:25 AM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

There is a difference between a playful growl and an agressive growl. My dog will do kind of a talk growl when we're playing...sort of an "aaaaarrrrrrr". This is where the dog's body language comes in, but if you do not know the dog and he's growling and you're not sure I would proceed with caution. A stiff body should be regarded more seriously than a relaxed body with wagging tail. Dogs tend to go more still when they're on high alert - either with a tail pointing down or a tail in the air but not moving. Sometimes, they may still wag their tail slowly if they are feeling cautious.

If a dog just nips or "mouths" you, you should yip and turn away. Dogs should have learned when they were pups not to use their mouths, but a lot of dogs might have been removed from their litter too soon or were otherwise not properly socialized and didn't learn this. When they're playing with their littermates as pups, they will let each other know when a bite is too hard by yelping.

Just try to be relaxed around them. Dogs can pick up on your tension. But at the same time, trust what instincts you have and don't continue to be in any situations where you feel uncomfortable. This is to both keep yourself safe and to set the dog up for success by removing yourself from a situation where they might be tempted to misbehave (if that makes sense).

Here are some articles on interpreting dog language:

How to Read Your Dog's Body Language (Modern Dog Magazine)

Dog Body Language (Best Friends Animal Society, pdf)

Canine Body Language (ASPCA)

How to Act Around Dogs

How to Interpret Dog Barks
posted by triggerfinger at 10:28 AM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

It can also depend on the breed, o have a sled dog who very rarely barks but she growls/ squeaks/ yips/ arr-ooos all.the.damn.time. In her case growling means nothing. Having said that she doesn't growl/talk at people unless she knows them well. She does growl/ talk to other dogs and pretty much the only ones who misunderstand and get scared are pitbulls. They seem to be a lot more defensive than other dogs.

I'm pretty comfortable with dogs but if a pitbull growled at me I would not want to be around that dog ever. Most breeds will spend all day "warning" you that they're totally going to do something and never do it but my experience with some of those fighting/ guardian breeds is that you get a bit of warning then they eat you. They'll go all in much more easily. (this goes for terriers too).
posted by fshgrl at 10:34 AM on June 5, 2012

We got the Art of Raising a Puppy which is written by a group of monks who train/breed German Shepherds. They have the whole background on behavior, training, commands, etc. Great book.
posted by stormpooper at 10:34 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please, PLEASE don't' follow any advice coming from Cesar Milan! People who actually know about dogs behavior and dog training -- people with advanced science degrees -- pretty much all agree that Milan's advice is bad at best and often dangerous.

As already recommended, Patricia McConnell is good. Also anything by Ian Dunbar is good. Go to his web site Dog Star Daily and look especially at the Training Textbook and Podcasts for advice.

A dog who is growling and wagging his tail is unsure of himself and could bite if he feels threatened. It's better to back away slowly from this kind of dog, speaking quietly to him, until he calms down. Hold your hand out and let him come to you. Don't make any sudden moves and wait until he's had a chance to sniff your hand and is seeming very calm before you try to pet him.

When a puppy nips, one good technique is to pretend you've been grievously injured. Yelp in a loud voice and immediately turn away from the puppy -- perhaps even leaving the room for a few minutes. Most pups are so worried by this kind of reaction that it only takes doing it once or twice before the nipping stops.

If two large dogs are fighting, don't try to get between them! Don't try to grab one or the other. You are very likely to be badly bitten. One approach I've seen work at dog parks requires a second person and a certain amount of strength. Each person has to try to "lasso" their dog (pretty much simultaneously with the other person) and drag the dog away from the fight. Assuming you've got your dog's leash, hold one end in each hand and swing the loop down over your dog's head and around his neck. Pull backwards. Another thing that sometimes works: if you're near a water hose, spray the dogs with it. They may be so startled that they stop fighting.
posted by rhartong at 10:45 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I should add that a dog who is growling and wagging his tail WITH A TOY IN HIS MOUTH may just want you to play with him. There is a play growl that many dogs will do. You have to be sure you know the dog well, though, before assuming that he wants to play.
posted by rhartong at 10:48 AM on June 5, 2012

In general if its not your dog and it does something like growl/ nip I would separate myself and call the owner and tell them what happened. And again I'm pretty comfortable with big dogs. No point in getting hurt over a dog that is not even yours.
posted by fshgrl at 10:53 AM on June 5, 2012

It seems like the simple answer is to ensure that you're not around them without the owner. I have a pit-mix and while I trust him with my 3 year old I wouldn't trust him with adults he doesn't know.

It'd be nice to say that it's 100% environment, or 100% genetics. But the truth is that it's not, it's a decent mix of either, and even then there's a lot of variables. Every dog is different, just like their human/snowflake counterparts. Books are a good start, but it's just the equivalent of learning a new language without learning the culture. Without the experience that you didn't get growing up, a lot of it still won't make sense until you see it for yourself.

So if you're in the same room/yard/area as the dogs just make sure that the owner is there as well. They can interpret their dogs better than anybody and let you know when it's a good growl or when you're too close or whatever.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:16 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So if you're in the same room/yard/area as the dogs just make sure that the owner is there as well.

Ok, one of the reasons I posted this was that the waggy-growly pit is usually chained, unsupervised, in a truck bed just outside our shared yard. He escaped this morning and had a fight with another dog while the owner was in the house. I suspect he won't be let outside for a while, but if the owner starts leaving him outside again, is it reasonable to ask him not to let the dog out when he's not around? How do I ask that question in a way that can get results? We have a friendly relationship so far.
posted by rhythm and booze at 11:23 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can ask... and if that doesn't work then call animal control. Around here they have leash laws, your area may be different.

But Animal Control will definitely be the correct people to talk to if the dog is loose.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:25 AM on June 5, 2012

Upon rereading the "chained in a truck bed" part... it sounds like the dog is treated more as decoration than part of the family, which is sad. Chances are it's just excited to see someone, but keep in mind that this doesn't translate into "safe to interact with."

You may be able to get something like a supervised visit (it's a poor analogy, but the words are valid) where you can spend some time with the dog around the owner. Heck, Fourth of July is coming up and that'd be a great time to spend some quality time with your neighbor and their dog, just getting accustomed to being around each other.

But I'd still keep my distance when it's on the chain until you get to know that particular dog better.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:37 AM on June 5, 2012

Is the dog chained briefly -- like 10 minutes a couple times a day? (This is fine). Or for hours at a time daily? (This is questionable judgement, depending on the dog).

My experience is mostly with pitties, but I'm not an expert. The fact that the dog is chained can sometimes increase the chance of the dog feeling insecure -- they can't escape or have any control over the situation. So I would be nervous about approaching him, especially if he's growling.

Number One rule to dog fights is: GET THE HELL AWAY. Pros can sometimes do this thing where 2 people each grab a dogs back legs and swing them away from each other, but even with all my experience, I wouldn't do it.
Similarly, do not pick up small furry thing if large dog is pursuing it -- this will entice the large dog further. Aim to remove the dog from the situation, and retrieve the small furry when the large dog is secured.

If the dog is being left out chained and you have concerns about the dog or someone's safety, call animal control. Call repeatedly, if need be.
posted by MeiraV at 11:41 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Caesar Milan. Some people take issue with his sort of power-play methods, but I think these people have a profound misunderstanding of the nature of a pack animal versus a social animal and have probably never handles large dogs.
Actually, it's Cesar Milan who has the profound misunderstanding of the nature of pack animals, insomuch as he still subscribes to a long superseded theory of pack behavior from the turn of the century with, in hindsight, some glaring problems in methodology. His dominance model comes from observed behavior of an ad hoc wolf pack assembled from captured wolves from around the country. Not only were these wolves unfamiliar with one another, they were also unrelated. A pack is a family group of closely related wolves, and their behavior when observed in the wild shows more cohesion, with older wolves guiding their younger brethren.

And then you have the fact that dogs are not wolves. They haven't been pack animals for thousands of years of domestication, and their behavior has evolved, first through natural selection, and then through husbandry. Dogs have evolved to be pets. They naturally look to learn from our body language, and intrinsically want to please.

Here are a couple of helpful links to behaviorist's studies and articles:
Whatever happened to the term Alpha Wolf?
Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit?
posted by patnasty at 11:41 AM on June 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

Also, if you have netflix watch instantly, you can check out "Dogs Decoded" and "National Geographic: Science of Dogs" more pop science than instructional, but still pretty interesting
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 12:04 PM on June 5, 2012

BTW, the monks that stormpooper mentioned are the monks of New Skete.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:08 PM on June 5, 2012

Ok, one of the reasons I posted this was that the waggy-growly pit is usually chained, unsupervised, in a truck bed just outside our shared yard.

Oh. One of those situations. Does the dog have shelter and water where its chained up? Is the dog otherwise welcome inside or in their yard off the chain?

I don't know your neighbors at all, but in my experience the kind of dog someone keeps chained to a truck all day is generally not meant to be a friendly, family kind of dog. In this case, keep clear under all circumstances unless the owners are around - if the dog gets off the chain, call animal control, or if you're friendly with the neighbors, call them at work.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:44 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The dog that is left outside is the pet of someone who doesn't actually live in the house. He brings the dog over to socialize with a dog that does live in the house. I think he leaves the dog in the truck when he can't supervise their playtime. I'm not sure how long the dog gets left outside; I'm guessing no longer than an hour. It might just be a coincidence, but I've been seeing it in the truck when I leave for work and when I come home from work.
posted by rhythm and booze at 1:10 PM on June 5, 2012

If a dog is chained up in it's owners truck, and you don't know it well I would hesitate to pat it as it might be territorial. This would go for any type of dog from pitbulls to a fluffy lap dog, pitbulls are no more aggressive than other dogs, and most dogs people think are pitbulls are some other breed anyway.

The point being, the growling & tail wagging thing is the dog trying to warn you that it doesn't want to be territorial and would really just like everything to be nice and not have a confrontation, but it might just defend things if you push it by trying to get on it's turf, because right now I'm chained up and vulnerable and can't get away. If you really want to pat the dog, stay back, talk softly to it and let it come to you if it wants to, definitely safest just to leave it if you aren't used to reading dog body language.

As for 2 fighting dogs (large or otherwise) leave them alone and let them fight. A lot of dog fights are a lot of noise and snarling until one of the dogs back off, and are scarier sounding than they actually are. If you interfere you can get hurt, let the dogs sort it out for themselves.

If a dog nips you while playing, make a whimpering noise, or even just a high pitched yelp, that is a noise dogs understand as pain. Withdraw your hand and stop playing. Most dogs don't want to hurt their play partners but don't realize that people are squishy as they are. The dog should learn after a few times.

If the dog gets off it's leash regularly call animal control. Accidental escapes do happen though and if the owner is usually pretty good about not leaving the dog tied up in the truck too long and keeping the dog leashed and under control when out and this is a rare occurrence I'd let it go this time. If he keeps on leaving it unsupervised for long lengths of time and you are nervous talk to the owner, explain you are not a dog person and how you feel. Maybe you can get to know the dog, or work out times he can leave the dog out when you aren't coming and going or find some other sort of compromise.
posted by wwax at 1:56 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've grown up around dogs....and they are pretty much just like dumb people. Two people can yell at you (growl) and smile (wag their tail) and it could mean two different things (one friend just playing with you and a guy on the street planning to take your money). It depends on the individual dog, your relationship with it, and the individual circumstance. My sister's dog growls at me all the time when we're playing and wrestling, and it's not a big deal. When she growls at me any other time, I tell her to knock it off.

With the nipping and going limp, that's fine. If a dog "nips" you and you go limp/stop playing, you're telling them that's not cool and you don't want to play anymore. Stand up and slowly walk away if you need to. Again, when my sister's dog nips me, I really don't care and continue wrestling. When my neighbor's dog nips me while playing I disengage immediately (it's a young but huge great dane). It depends on your comfort level.

Stay out of dog fights unless one of them is yours. Even if one of them is yours, do not physically engage (hands and feet, etc.). When walking my dog I carry pepper spray to be used against any stray dogs.

In terms of your neighbor's dog - if the dog is chained - as you say it is - you really cannot ask the neighbor to keep the dog inside (well, you CAN, but I would consider it rude and unreasonable). If the dog REGULARLY escapes from its chain you can request the neighbor look into getting a more secure system (or hell, even just take your concerns to them - "I notice it was loose last week - did the chain break?" they might say, "naw, the clip didn't latch all the way - believe me, I'll always double check from now on!") and if they refuse then just call animal control any time it's off its leash/loose.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 2:59 PM on June 5, 2012

Here are some great dog training-related drawings by Lili Chin. Specific links from that page that you might want to look at:

  • body language
  • Learning to Greet Dogs Properly
  • How to NOT greet a dog

  • posted by hooray at 3:18 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

    I'm finishing up a program currently to become a certified dog trainer. The school of thought that I generally subscribe to is positive reinforcement. I'm not huge on the whole pack school of thought, as we are humans and not dogs, so dogs don't really see if in the same light when it comes to the "pack mentality." I like the training style of Victoria Stillwell (Animal Planet's Its Me of the Dog). I believe she has a book, and she gives a lot of good tips on her show for posturing and voice when it comes to dealing with dogs.

    At any rate, I'm sure people have mentioned this already: dogs do not only wag their tails if they are happy. A tail wag can also be a sign of aggression. Also things to look for in an offensive threat posture (dog is poised to attack) Tail up and stiff (could be wagging), Hackles up, ears forward, nose wrinkled, corners of mouth forward, stands tall and forward on toes. In this case I would stand down, as it were, make yourself as nonthreatening as you can (look down, no direct eye contact, and turn away slowly).

    Its hard to sit back and watch a dog fight happen (as people have said, if it isn't even just very aggressive sounding play, my dogs can sound pretty bad but they know their boundaries). I would say if it is not your dog do not intervene, you don't want to be on the receiving end of a pit bite. We were taught to instruct the owners to lift the more aggressive dog (usually there is one doing most of the attacking) back legs slightly off the ground to force the dog to turn, and once they break to separate the dogs asap. But like I said, I would not do this if you do not know these dogs.

    As someone has recommended with nipping, you can yelp, or ouch, or any noise, as long as you are consistent, to startle the dog (not frighten!) Or you could try freezing or shunning as soon as they start nipping, it can depend on the personality of the dog and whether they are nipping playfully or nipping in a "bossy" type way to try to get you to do what they want.

    Also... keeping the dog chained up for long period in a truck is definitely bothersome. I may consider calling animal control if the dog is out in the open in a public area (even if its in their yard). At least they could come by and maybe startle your neighbor into keeping the dog out back or inside.
    posted by Quincy at 5:01 PM on June 5, 2012

    I was at a friend's house once and they had another dog over to play with their dog. The dogs had some sort of misunderstanding and started fighting. My friends are both small people and they had a gigantic American Bulldog and the other dog was medium-to-large sized. They both started trying to pull the dogs apart, with no success at all. I walked up to my friend, grabbed the water bottle out of his hand, and squirted it at the dogs' faces. They broke apart and each ran to separate corners of the yard to figure out what the heck just happened.

    So. If you absolutely, positively must break up a fight, do it with water.
    posted by cooker girl at 1:07 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Response by poster: Thanks everyone, I really appreciate the thoughtful responses. I feel better equipped already!
    posted by rhythm and booze at 9:32 PM on June 6, 2012

    Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz is an amazing and interesting science resource for learning about dogs' behavior and interactions with humans. It's definitely helpful.

    A couple of other tips I didn't immediately see in this thread:
    - Always offer the back of your hand to a dog to sniff before touching him, unless the dog knows you really well. (Back of hand, palm toward you=if you startle-jerk, your hand will close toward you instead of accidentally closing on the dog.) It's the polite equivalent to "hello!" and lets the dog scope you out while you check his reaction (licking your fingers enthusiastically? Shying away from the motion of your hand?). It's like if someone walked up to you on the street and out of nowhere gave you a bearhug. If you're old friends it's fine; if it's a total stranger it's like WTF GET OFF ME.
    - Dogs can behave very differently when leashed/chained vs walking freely. Many dogs are "leash-aggressive: they feel they must defend the owner walking them, or they may attack out of fear when they'd prefer to retreat because the restraint makes them feel they can't escape. (Sadly, this is part of why dogs chained up for long stretches have a reputation for aggression.) Off-leash dogs aren't automatically safe, but it's better they don't feel cornered when you meet them. Always offer a strange dog a physical escape route past you if possible.
    posted by nicebookrack at 10:50 AM on June 14, 2012

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