top of page

Does Your Dog Have a Tell?

Whether you have a dog that exhibits reactivity to other dogs, aggression towards strangers, or predatory behavior towards cats, squirrels, and other small animals, chances are that you dog gives plenty of warnings before they growl, snarl, lunge, or snap. I’m not talking about common signs of stress, displacement, or avoidance, such as yawning, lip licking, increased respiration, etc. I’m talking about that one thing your dog does right before a reaction. For example, I was walking with a client’s dog this afternoon. She’s a dream to walk, with a lovely loose lead, offering her attention when people and other dogs walk by (“This is one of those opportunities for me to earn a treat, right?), and very responsive. So, when she suddenly rushed toward a fence, I knew something was up. Two seconds later, the resident dog charged the fence, barking ferociously. Had I not noticed her sudden change in behavior and reacted immediately, the situation could have quickly degenerated into a snarling match between the two dogs. So, how did I know to react? Her owner told me that she would sometimes engage in fence fighting behavior, so I knew the risk was there, but also because her change in behavior told me. A few blocks later, she did it again. Sure enough, there was a dog behind that fence, ready to engage. Now I know her tell. In poker, a tell is:

"a change in a player's behavior or demeanor that is claimed by some to give clues to that player's assessment of their hand. A player gains an advantage if they observe and understand the meaning of another player's tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable." (Wikipedia)

This dog’s tell, her indication that she is about to engage in fence fighting, is the sudden rush toward the fence. Earlier today, a dog-reactive German Shepherd would walk to the end of the leash and stare intently at the other dog for about 2 seconds before barking and lunging. So, I know that if I see that stare, it's time to go. Every dog is different, but common tells include:

  • Ears forward

  • Change in head position - higher or lower

  • Mouth changing from open to closed

  • Staring (2 seconds or more)

  • Freeze

These tells are your “uh-oh” signals. Signs that you either missed earlier warnings, or that the sudden change in environment is more than your dog can handle at this point in their training. What do you do? Get out. Fast. Call your dog’s name, take several steps backward, do an Emergency U-Turn, anything to remove your dog from that situation and prevent a reaction. It’s not fool-proof. Your dog can still bark over their shoulder at the other dog as you walk away, but it’s better than standing there and waiting to see what happens next. Now that you’ve removed your dog from the situation, you can stop and assess what went wrong. Ideally, you’ve learned how to spot the early signs of stress, so you can intervene long before that tell appears. We don’t want to put dogs in situations where they get that close to reacting on a regular basis. We want to keep their stress levels as low as possible so that they don’t form negative associations. But we all make mistakes. I do. And you will, too. Don’t beat yourself up. Sometimes those mistakes give us invaluable information about our dogs that we can use in the future. Have you learned your dog's tell?


Serenity Canine Behavior Ⓒ2022 Lisa Mullinax. All rights reserved.

bottom of page