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When we fail to read a dog’s behavior

We all make mistakes

I want to share an example of something stupid I did at a dog shelter last month.

My point is to show how even experienced dog people make mistakes and ignore obvious cues from dogs.

No wonder the general public fails to read basic dog behavior.

I had stopped by the shelter for a few minutes for an errand. I’m a volunteer there, so I’m approved to visit the dogs, walk them and so on. Another volunteer was working her shift, bringing several of the dogs in from outside.

When dogs are coming and going, it creates a lot of excitement for them. Many will bark from their cages as the others walk by.

There was one little dog standing in her corner cage.

I had walked this dog before and given her affection outside on a leash. I was aware of her tendency to growl or snap while under stress, especially around anyone unfamiliar.

It was obvious she was stressed that night. I noticed her growling and lunging at a few of the others. She hadn’t touched her food. I knew she had been living in a shelter environment for months.

Like many of us who volunteer at shelters, we have a soft spot for the more “challenging” dogs. We want to win them over, get them to love us.

So what did I do?

As this little dog was in her cage, I walked towards her, head on. I also made direct eye contact.

She made no signal that she was interested in interacting with me. She did not jump up playfully. She did not wag her tail or stick her tongue through the bars. She did not wiggle.

She stood still, a pretty clear signal.

I – a complete stranger as far as she was concerned – hovered above her and then knelt to her eye level.

We were inches apart, and I sat facing her. I talked in a sweet voice and held out my hand. Her food was also beside her, by the way.

She stiffened, growled and snapped.

I immediately realized what I’d done, and I felt so bad.

I had created an incredibly stressful situation for this dog.

In her cage, she had nowhere to hide, nowhere to get away. Not only that, but her cage – her space – was the only thing she had. She had every reason to protect her only resources – her bed, her food, her water.

I know better than to approach any dog the way I did. Why would she remember me out of all the dozens of volunteers she sees each month?

How could I be so inconsiderate?

Because I’m a human.

I see a pretty little dog in need, and I immediately want to give her affection.

People make this mistake all the time.

I also want to point out that although this dog could’ve easily bitten me, she did not.

How many dogs would bite under this scenario? Some would.

How many get blamed – labeled as “aggressive” or “dangerous” – because of one human’s mistake?

I wanted to share this personal experience to show how careless we humans can be. Sometimes one mistake can even cost a dog her life.

Dogs learn to tolerate our invasive hugs, direct eye contact and kisses (see pic). Some of them even enjoy it! That doesn’t mean we should expect new dogs to accept us right away, especially if we barge right up to their personal spaces.

Thankfully, the little dog is doing just fine. I will never treat her like that again. She is waiting patiently for a foster or adoptive home so she can get out of the shelter environment and get on with her life.

If you have it in your heart, please volunteer to foster a dog or cat in your area. Shelters can be such scary, stressful places.

Golden retriever, black lab and woman for a group hug!


Thursday 12th of September 2013

This is a great article. And I definitely agree - less people would give up their dogs or even have negative experiences with their pets and other canines if they knew and understood this. Why not compose something like this, maybe a list of guildelines or the story above with a few bullet point reminders and send it to the Humane Society. Suggest that they give it out and/or review it with each person who adopts. If you did that part of the work, they might realize what a great idea it is and implement it! : )

Lindsay Stordahl

Thursday 12th of September 2013

Great idea!

Renchan Li

Thursday 12th of September 2013

These experiences are quite educational for me. Thanks.


Monday 1st of October 2012

I LOVE what you wrote - it is so unbelievable valuable for people to know these differences between human and canine interaction; if everyone knew this i bet the number of dogs surrendered to shelters would diminish greatly. I also love how respectful and humble you are. AWESOME job.

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 1st of October 2012

Wow, thanks Suzanne!

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 18th of September 2012

That's exactly why shelters need to make it easier for people to adopt.


Wednesday 12th of September 2012

This is somewhat unrelated, but I'm curious about your thoughts.

You mentioned that this little dog has been in the shelter for months; at what point does it become cruel to keep a dog locked up in a cage for months on end? I'm sure she's getting the required walks and feeding, but is that living? I don't agree with euthanizing for space, but I also don't agree with keeping a dog in a cage for a long period of time, either.

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 12th of September 2012

Hi Mel. Thanks for your comment.

Yes, that is a tough topic. I believe this is where rescues really need to do their marketing and do all they can to get the dogs into foster homes and better yet, adoptive homes. This dog does get quite a bit of attention - field trips, walks, off-site adoption events. Of course, she could use a lot more training, socialization and exercise, however. A shelter is no place for a dog long term, but it beats death.

Let me know your thoughts and ideas, too.