Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Dog ETA: 3 Quick Ways to Assess Friendliness

| 36 Comments

Dog ETA pictureWalking in a local park yesterday with a client and her sweet pup, a dog came toward us.The two dogs met and had a happy, mutual exchange. Another dog headed our way; I instantly nixed any contact  using my simple Dog ETA assessment.

ETA = Estimated Time to Aggression. 😉  Actually, it stands for Eyes, Tail and Alignment. There are lots of subtleties and exceptions but this how I make real-life decisions.

  1. Eyes
    Staring ain’t caring. The longer a dog stares at your dog—close-mouthed and deadpan—the less friendly that dog probably is. Not sure? Imagine another human staring at you the way your dog is being stared at and you’ll be on the right track.
  2. Tail
    The higher the tail, especially the base of the tail (where it meets the dog’s body), the more excited the dog is. Excited is not the same as friendly. At all. A friendly tail is wagging big wags and the base of it is about even with the dog’s spine. A wide, low wag or a happy circular wag are both excellent signs of good social intent. A stiff tail held straight up nearly vibrating is a pretty reliable sign of scary intent. So if you see a raised stiff motionless/vibrating tail. Steer clear!
  3. Alignment
    What is “alignment”? Think “arrow”. The straighter the dog’s path of travel toward you, the stiffer they are, the more arrow-like they appear – the more risk there is. A friendly dog is “soft” and wiggles when they wag. They often arc or curve slightly as they approach. An intense, assertive dog is not “soft” and does not wiggle, they do not generally arc or curve in their approach. An arrow-like dog may lie down as you approach. That is not friendly. Think “lion hunting” and you’ll be closer to the truth most times.

Dog ETA imageThe dog pictured here is showing ETA posture I avoid.*

  • See how intently this dog is staring? Ears forward. Mouth closed.
  • See how the base of that tail is sticking up and the tail is stiff?
  • See how arrow-like this dog’s head-to-tail alignment is?

This is not a dog I would allow Pip to greet. And I might be wrong. I’d rather be wrong than have her frightened or harmed.

I hope the Dog ETA allows you to enjoy your dog walks more and feel more confident about your choices.

Pat your dog for me.

*This is NOT a breed thing. Boxers are usually friendly, social dogs. This is just a pic I found that illustrates dog ETA well. There are friendly dogs in every breed/mix and unfriendly dogs in every breed/mix. 

Related: Protection from Loose Dogs: What I Carry

36 Comments

  1. Great tips that will help on my walks with george 🙂 As we come across a lot of off lead dogs here it is good to know the signs. Not sure how I can keep off lead dogs away from him though 🙁

  2. This is yet another one of your posts I’d like to print and tape to the foreheads of owners (of dogs like the one pictured).
    “He just wants to meet your dog!”
    Yes, and I’d like a weekend with Hugh Jackman. Neither will be happening 😉

  3. A couple of weeks ago we ran into a Doberman at a dog park that squared up to Maya in exactly that posture and *stared* at her from 100 feet away! I leashed Maya up and we left the park. It was one frightening look!

  4. Thank you for such a clear and helpful description of what to look for and what it means. I will be sending the link to this post to many clients and friends.

  5. long time boxer owner and my first thought on seeing that photo was that the boxer had prey in his sights. So your assessment seems dead on to me.

    My wiggly little girl only gets like that for the birds that dare to land in the yard. Poor little things.

  6. Are there exceptions to the ETA rule? We adopted a pit mix who just wants to play and is super friendly. In the almost-two years we’ve had him, there isn’t a single dog he has met that he didn’t like (now he’s met plenty of dogs who didn’t like him, but that’s a different story entirely!). We regularly take him to the dog park to socialize.

    He is very polite in engaging a playmate. He will sniff and bow (and will retreat immediately if a potential playmate wants absolutely nothing to do with him, whether it’s an aggressive reaction or not).

    The one problem he has, which can easily be misconstrued as a potential attack is that he stares. But his posture is always relaxed and his tail wag appears casual while he watches.

    I think he stares to make eye contact because he wants to engage that dog as a playmate. Is that entirely possible? Can staring also indicate curiosity?

    • Maybe, Bri. I’d start teaching him how to break eye contact and reconnect with you. It’s not hard to teach and can be a big help to dogs who over focus on things.

      How many dogs “don’t like him”? If it’s most or even many then he may be too assertive in his intro and, as above, teaching how to break contact and refocus on you, may calm him enough to have more successful interactions.

      Glad you asked and glad you’re thinking about this in various context. Dogs are endlessly interesting, in my opinion.

      • In all of our jaunts to the dog park over the past two-ish years, there have only been a handful. In fact there are only two dogs in my mind that really reacted nastily to him in intros…one very recently, in fact. They chased after him snapping and angrily barking as he retreated. They were small dogs though so I wasn’t entirely concerned, but I recognize that a big(ger) dog could have the same reaction and it could become a grave situation.

        Thanks for the tip on training. Do you have any specific resources on your site that address redirecting focus?

        • Hi Bri – Lots of tips. 🙂 There are many exercises laid out in detail on the My Smart Puppy Guide: How to Train Your Dog to Come book (amazon).

          Enthusiasm isn’t politeness so teaching him how to slow down and stay in connection to you rather than rush forward tail wagging would be the first task.

          If a stranger runs up to me and starts hugging me enthusiastically he’s likely to be run off with me snapping, too. Doesn’t matter to me that HE’S friendly. 😉

  7. This is my youngest dog to a tee. A more friendly dog you won’t meet. He just doesn’t know how to greet other dogs appropriately.

    I don’t take him to dog parks though, I prefer him to play with friends’ dogs whose temperaments are known.

  8. This is so helpful! I have a little chihuahua and other people in my neighborhood ask, “Is he friendly?” when they pass with their dogs on the street. I always say, “Sometimes. I never know.” One of three things will then happen. 1) the person will say, “Ok, then,” and will pass by without an introduction. 2) The dogs will sniff butts and go on their way. 3) My dog will curl his lip and let out a low growl or snap. Reading his ETA will help me to know whether or not to keep walking or try the introduction!

    • That’s a great use of this info. Many small dogs feel threatened/stressed by larger, active dogs (who can blame them). Play head turn games to teach him how to hustle back to you happily away from distractions and things should get easier for both of you. 🙂

  9. My dog always lays down as dogs approach. But it means he wants to play.

    • Yes, Collin, there are dog who do that but it isn’t easy to tell when approaching a dog if he is playful or predatory so avoidance is the best course of action for those who don’t know the dog.

      Other dogs lie down and then rush the approaching dog. And while the rushing dog finds that fun, the rushed dog doesn’t always. So, that’s another reason to steer clear unless you know you have a dog who enjoys such things.

  10. Number 3 is exactly how my dog is so I don’t allow him to greet other dogs. It means we just do lead walks and he doesn’t get off lead time. I wish I could change it but after 4 years of positive reinforcement and conditioning we’re no closer.

    • Hi Erica – Not every dog needs to or enjoys other dogs. My goal is always that they can walk by other dogs with no attempt to threaten them or react to them. That makes them easy to live with and is enough for me. 🙂

      • That’s very true, even when Buddy is with a familiar dog he likes he would rather hang out with the people. I always feel so guilty that he’s missing out but maybe he’s happier this way. He’s never attacked another dog but was badly attacked when he was young. He’s also an easily aroused dog with cats and birds and loud noises. Minimising stress to him is my daily goal.

        • Oh, he’s lucky to have you.

          One of the hardest things to do is to let go of our idea of their life and go with what they actually enjoy. If he’s no fan of other dogs then so be it. Build your team-ness, teach him tricks, try rally or agility if you’re in the mood. His life can be full and wonderful without the company of most other dogs.

  11. Great info. What is sad is the number of owners who will not recognize their dog from this description and blindly walk this dog around barely hanging on to the end of the leash. Please stress teaching children how to recognize these signs also. A wagging tail and upright ears doesn’t a friendly dog make!

  12. Very interesting article. Everyone needs to keep these facts in mind!

  13. My terrier mix (about 26 pounds) was once attacked by an Alaskan Malamute. The malamute made an arrow for my dog just as you describe. It was a truly horrifying experience. Had I not reacted quickly and picked up my dog as I saw the other coming – she would have been killed. The malamute did bite my dog’s leg. I am lucky I was not hurt and my dog not killed. The owner of the Malamute came running and pulled off her dog who had broken away from her. It was truly terrible. What compounded the injury is that my mix was a shelter rescue who was already fearful and this just made things worse for her in many ways. It has been many years since the incident but I remember it vividly.

    I also read your post about carrying Citronella spray. I will have to pick some up. I never want to feel completely defenseless if in that position again. Thanks for the information!

    • You are brave and acted quickly, Pat. You saved your dog much worse harm and risked yourself doing it.

      Glad you found the “what to carry” article helpful but I hope you never have to use it!

      Pats to your lucky little dog.

  14. Good tips on this for those who think every dog is happy-go-lucky. My dog is the one who can display the “ETA” body language and she has lunged before. It’s always only upon first greeting though. After being in the new dog’s presence for just a minute, she does fine.

    We go on group dog walks all the time, and I simply don’t let other people have their dogs greet her until she has settled in. It works great and she relaxes and even play bows to some of her favorite doggie friends.

    You have to be aware of it, but also not scared of it. 🙂

    • Hi Nikki –

      Glad you are so aware and on top of it. Not everyone is as proactive as you are; in fact, very few people are, in my experience. So, people being cautious is a better plan for them and their companions. My guess is that once your dog is settled in, she does not display the worrisome ETA body language anymore so then caution no longer applies. Keep up the good work! Sarah

  15. A loose dog approached me and my dog in exactly this way the other evening. My gut told me “something’s not right.” And I could sense my own dog getting more and more uncomfortable with the whole thing. I ended up bringing my boy into the fenced yard of total strangers (they were nice about it!) to avoid the other dog.

  16. It is a good piece but perhaps not strictly true? Our wire haired fox terrier is a year old and ‘adopts the pose’ for which they are known if he sees anything..human or dog…approaching.
    When they get close he wags his tail and has yet to even growl at another dog, let alone show aggressive intent.
    Yet the ‘arrowhead’ pose you refer to best describes him watching..
    Odd, huh?

    • Actually, quite typical for some terriers and I would not let a dog of mine greet yours when he was set up like that. I’d encourage you to teach him how to disconnect and soften. That’s a great time to practice head turns and coming when called away from distractions.

      Yes, quite typical of some terriers but typical doesn’t mean it can’t be influenced. No matter what the breed or mix, that is an intense/aroused posture worthy of adjustment.

      And I would not expect a terrier with that pose to growl. Not all dogs who are intense growl, which does confuse people.

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