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Does your dog bite?



Understanding doggy body language will help with the answer

Kids can be made "bite-proof" if they are taught to respond to dogs properly, said renowned dog expert and psychologist, Dr. Stanley Coren.

"Everything a child does when he sees a dog is wrong," he said.

A child stares at the dog. He shows his teeth in a big smile. He rushes towards the dog. And he holds out his arms and hands.

From a dog's point of view, those hands look like potentially threatening mouths.

"To dogs, we look like the many-headed Hydra that Hercules slew," he said.

Coren is psychology professor at the University of B.C. but his passion is canines. He has writen about this passion in many books, discusses it on the air on his television show "Good Dog" and practices his advice as an instructor at the Vancouver Dog Obedience Training Club.

He came to Whistler last week to explain to a room full of dog enthusiasts how their canine pets communicate in their own unique way.

It's up to us to understand what they're "saying," he said.

We can do this by reading their body language.

"We tend to forget that there are other ways to convey meaning (besides speaking)," Coren said.

From their ears, to their mouths, to their tails, dogs use their bodies to let people know if they are scared, angry, submissive or relaxed.

Using diagrams Coren pointed out the obvious differences between a dominant/aggressive dog and a fearful/submissive dog.

If a dog is feeling dominant and aggressive in a situation he will be standing slightly forward in a stiff-legged stance. His tail will be standing up above his back, his lips will be curled and he will be staring. He will also have some wrinkles along his muzzle.

By comparison, a dog that is scared and submissive will start to break off eye contact, his muzzle will be smooth and his tail will be lower. He may also raise a paw or leave wet footprints and may start licking the person or animal that is causing him to react this way.

"When they are under stress of any sort what they try to do is adopt a very puppy like set of behaviours," he said.

Licking is a sign that the dog is stressed and he is letting the other dog or person know that he is not going to initiate any conflict.

The dog to be really worried about is the one is who scared and aggressive, said Coren.

This dog will show a combination of the signs.

His body will be low to the ground and his hackles will be raised along his back. His ears will be slicked back and his teeth may be bared. His tail will be tucked between his legs.

These signs together are the ones to be careful of, said Coren. This dog is scared for his life and he may attack.

Of all the body signs Coren said the tails are some of the most misunderstood in the dog's language. A dog simply wagging his tail does not necessarily mean that he is happy.

"Dogs will wag their tail to anything that is alive... even a piece of lint that is blowing around," he said.

A very dominant dog will have his tail high above his back and it may quiver back and forth. By comparison, a submissive or scared dog will tuck his legs between his tail.

"This is communication," said Coren. "This is not just simply the dog expressing emotions."

Coren stressed the importance of reading dogs' signals.

"If you understand what dogs are doing then you can avoid a lot of problems," he said.

This is especially important as one in every four families in Canada lives with a dog.

If kids are taught to read the body language then they are less likely to be bitten.

Instead of running at the animals, kids must be taught to stand still, fold their arms and break off any eye contact with the dog, Coren said.

If they move slowly, the dogs are more likely to respond calmly.

And one more piece of advice is to pet a dog under the chin and later move your hand onto his head. If your hand goes directly on top of the head this establishes dominance and the dog may interpret that as a threat.

Some of the roughly 50 community members who came to the meeting asked the doctor about their dogs' quirks after his presentation.

How do you stop a dog from humping everything? How do you stop a dog destroying everything? Do dogs have any concept of time? Why do dogs roll in things?

Coren offered lots of suggestions and advice. More advice and information can be found in his books like How to Speak Dog and The Intelligence of Dogs.

His latest book, which is set to hit bookshelves in April, is called The Pawprints in History.