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Be Aware of Warning Signs of Animal Stress

All animals, no matter how well-trained or good-natured, can potentially bite, scratch, jump-up or trip someone. The neighbourhood dogs and cats participating in our program have gentle dispositions but may not have received any special training. Therefore, guardians accompanying children or disabled adults are especially encouraged to seek advice from the pet owner before approaching an animal.


To avoid accidents it is important to watch for early warning signs that a dog or cat may exhibit indicating signs of stress. These signs are fortunately very easy to learn, and we can avoid mishaps by being aware of their stress warning signs.


Here is a simple list to help you prevent unexpected accidents:


Watch for tight canine body language. Good dog body language is loose, relaxed, and wiggly. Stiffening and freezing in a dog are not good. If you see a dog tighten his body, or if he moves from panting to holding his breath (he stops panting), you should distance yourself or your child. These are early signs that a dog is not comfortable.


Watch for inappropriate human behavior. Intervene if a child climbs on or attempts to ride a dog. Intervene immediately if a child pulls the ears, yanks the tail, lifts the jowls or otherwise pokes and prods a dog or cat. Don’t test an animal by waiting to see if it will tolerate these antics. Be thankful a dog or cat has good bite inhibition and intervene before it’s too late.

In this video identify these warnings: 

  • teeth bared (not a smile) 

  • growling

  • whites of eyes showing

  • lip licking

  • tongue flicks 

  • Holding the dog so it can't escape from the child (the dog's only option is to fight) 

Watch for avoidance behaviors. If a dog moves away from you or a child, intervene to prevent the child from following the dog.  A dog that chooses to move away is making a decision.  It’s saying, “I don’t really want to be bothered, so I’ll go away.”  However, when you fail to support that decision and allow a child to continue to follow it, the dog’s next choice may be, “Since I can’t get away, I’ll growl or snap to get the child to move away.”  Please don’t wait for a dog to make that choice.


Listen for growling. Don’t wait for owners to say “Oh, he growls but won’t bite” even with cats and small breeds like Chihuahuas and Daschunds. For dogs and cats, growling is an early warning sign of aggression. Heed it. If growling doesn’t work, a dog may escalate to snapping or biting. Growling is a clear clue that you should intervene between a dog and a person or child.


To practice you can try to observe these 3 really easy-to-see stress signals in a dog: 


  • Yawning outside the context of waking up


  • Whale eye - you can see the whites on the outer edges of a dog’s eyes


  • Lip licking outside the context of eating food



To pet owners - Thank you for supervising your dog! Juggling new people with your dog or cat is no easy feat. It takes patience, understanding, and a great deal of supervision.


Hopefully these tips will help you have safe and enjoyable experiences with all dogs and cats you meet 

including those in our Foster Pets Program.

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