Sue Sternberg is probably the leading authority on the rehabilitation and successful re-homing of shelter dogs in the USA. The following are some pointers she suggests to look for when being approached or approaching a strange dog. There might even be signs that you recognize in some of your own dogs in certain contexts. Some of these pointers were taken down during a lecture and are to be credited to Sue Sternberg.

1) No signs of friendliness at all. The dog ignores you, almost as if you are not there. Similar to an ostrich putting his head in the sand. ‘If I do not see you I don’t have to deal with you’. This shows signs of feeling uncomfortable in a situation and the dog is trying to avoid it.

2) Even if the dog tolerates being touched does not mean the dog is friendly. Emphasis here is on ‘tolerate’. (See no.10)

3) They can even initiate contact, but then not allow you to touch them. The moment you touch them or reach out to them they back away. Respect this, the dog is telling you he does not like it. (See no.10)

4) Dilated pupils!! When checking this out, be sure not to stare at the dog this could be perceive as a threat by the dog.

5) The white of the eyes show. This happens because the dog is giving you a ‘calming signal’ which is turning his head away from you/the ‘perceived threat’ but at the same time the dog does not want to take his eyes of the ‘scary’ thing.

6 ) Short or prolonged ‘freezes’ in body language/movements.

7 ) Nudging at your body with their muzzle. Sort of like ‘testing the water with your toe’.

8 ) They can have a furrowed brow.

9) Stiff tail or swaying slowly stiffly. Please remember that a wagging tail is not always a sign of friendliness, it’s merrily a sign of arousal – ever seen dogs barking ferociously at a gate and wagging their tails at the same time? Read the dog’s body language as a whole.

10) Is the dog displaying body language of being cautious or anxious? I.e. moving backwards or leaning forward with front quarters but with bracing their hind legs, turning the head away for short or long periods, licking his nose, lowering of the head, ears pressed against head or backwards, is the tail held low or tucked, rounded hind quarters and/or rounded top line, yawning, scratching himself, suddenly starting to sniff the ground, ‘hiding’ behind owner, trying to move away, lifting the one front paw, and/or avoiding eye contact, raised hair on the back of the dog is also a sign of arousal. If contact is pursued the dog can growling or lift the lips to show the canine teeth as a last warning.

11) Age of dog and intact status (elbows are a good sign of age). According to Sue’s experience dogs older than 12 months are more likely to bite if they perceive a threat and can cause more damage when they do bite. This does not mean that you can now safely approach a younger dog. Please remember to read the dog’s body language as a whole.

Other signs

1) Normally, in a tense situation a dog’s mouth will close just before he bites. It’s almost as if he is ‘holding his breath’/tension.

2) Even if dogs are generally very affiliative towards you and approach you with ease – it’s about their feelings towards people,andnbsp;it’s not about you, per se. Do not assume that because you are a ‘dog-lover’ that all dogs are ‘people-lovers’.

3) Bites happen really quickly; so much so that bites/attacks appear to happen in the ‘past tense’ – if you do not know what to look for.