Fido, May I? Red Light, Green Light Dog Greetings Part II

Ever since I was a kid, I wished that dogs could talk to us. That they could tell us how they're feeling, what they want,...


Ever since I was a kid, I wished that dogs could talk to us. That they could tell us how they’re feeling, what they want, what the like or dislike. Now I know that in fact, dogs are talking to us all the time and often, their “voices” go unheard. We humans frequently define language by words, syntax, grammar, sentences, paragraphs that we forget about other forms of communication like body language (which is actually a significant part of our own communications as well, we’re just not often cognizant of it). Dogs communicate to us with their bodies. Here are some “red light” body language signals a dog may give to indicate he does not want you to touch him, approach him, or otherwise interact with him. WARNING – this may develop into a two day series, but it’s for your own (and your dog’s own) good!


  • The dog backs away when you approach – Earlier in the week, I mentioned that growing up, we didn’t really go out of our way to socialize our dogs, they pretty much lived off leash, and yet I can’t recall a single bite of significance. Why? Not because they were so well-socialized, but because they always had the chance to escape/get away (they’re faster than we are!). I think 90+% of dog bite situations are in fact caused by the confinement tools we use to try to keep our dogs safe, like fences and leashes. A “normal” dog would always rather move away from something it perceives as threatening (flight) than attack it (fight). When a dog is on leash, the flight option has been removed – he cannot escape the situation. Dogs that feel trapped are dangerous dogs. If a dog backs away from you, he is decidedly putting up a huge “STOP” sign saying, “please stay away from me!”
  • “Whale eye” – if you look at a relaxed dog, you generally see none or very little of the whites of the dogs eyes. A nervous dog will show much of the whites of his eyes, this is known amongst trainers as “whale eye” or “half moon eye.”
  • Pupil dilation – this one can be tricky to see, because you don’t really want to stare directly into the eyes of a strange dog (which can be seen by the dog as a sign of confrontation), but if a dog’s pupils suddenly dilate as you approach, back off!
  • Displacement behaviors – worthy of its own blog entry, you can learn more about displacement behaviors from Doggone Safe.
  • Watch that tail! – we talked yesterday about “jelly bones” and happy tail wags. But not all tail wags are happy and some are a precursor to an imminent bite situation. Tails which are tucked low, even if wagging, are generally not a good sign. Also, tails which are held high over the back and look very stiff, as if there were metal rods running through the tail, and are wagging rapidly (looking as if they are almost vibrating) are definitely not a good sign – this dog is saying, “back off!” Tail signals, like ear signals, may vary with structure and conformation – these signals may be absent or hard to read in dogs with particular tail types (including spitz breeds, northern breeds, Pomeranians, Chows, etc.) and may be impossible to read in dogs with docked tails.

We’ll talk more tomorrow about further red light signals! Until then, happy training, dogsters!

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