Ask the Trainer | Buster simply meant ‘back off’ |

Ask the Trainer | Buster simply meant ‘back off’

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. – We adopted a Border Collie mix from a rescue group several weeks ago. They estimated that Buster is 3-4 years old. He constantly wants to be petted, nuzzles our hands and licks us. He is very loving, but does some unpredictable things that make us nervous. A friend came to our house yesterday and Buster rolled over on his back. When our friend leaned down to scratch his tummy, Buster snapped at him. He didn’t make contact, but it scared everyone. We are worried that he will bite someone next time.

– Buster’s worried family

Dear Worried,

Buster is very new to your household and still trying to figure out his place in your family. Visitors to the house just add another level of stress to an already stressful situation. Most dogs settle into new environments after three to four weeks, but it can take longer depending on the dog’s temperament and history. The kind of problem you describe often arises when humans don’t understand what dogs are trying to say to them. Dogs communicate non-verbally, so a little lesson in dog communication is in order. To understand what a dog is trying to say, we have to look at their behaviors.

The first category of behaviors are those used to appease others and are used when a dog is communicating they see you or another dog as their leader. Appeasement behaviors include: nuzzling with their nose, licking, jumping up, paw lifts, teeth clacking, crouching, pretzeling their body, play bows, and smiling. You mentioned that Buster nuzzles and licks you, so this gives us a clue about how he sees you.

The second category of behaviors are those used for deference and are offered by a dog who perceives a treat. Many things humans do without a second thought are interpreted by dogs as threat displays such as making direct eye contact, approaching head-on, using a loud voice, bending over, and patting on the head. Common deference behaviors include tail tucking, freezing, averting eye contact or turning the head away, rolling onto the back, and submissively urinating. When Buster rolled onto his back for your friend, he perceived him as a threat. When the friend leaned over to pet him, Buster was so frightened he snapped to warn him to back off. This doesn’t mean that all dogs who roll over and show their tummies are scared, but in this situation it does. A secure dog who is comfortable in their environment very likely does want a belly rub!

Lastly, it helps to recognize some common signs of dogs who are feeling stressed and are trying to calm themselves or others. Humans can mimic these behaviors to communicate to a nervous or fearful dog that they mean no harm. Observe Buster and note any of the following behaviors:

1. Lip licking

2. Yawning

3. Sniffing at the ground

4. Curving to the side when approaching

5. Blinking

You can build Buster’s confidence by creating a structured, predictable environment with routine and positive reinforcement based training. Don’t push him or put him in situations that make him uncomfortable and give him time to settle in and learn his place in your pack.

– Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at

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