Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who
partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Well-trained dogs that are social are better able to cope with closer
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What Are Distance Increasing and Decreasing Behaviors?
Many behaviors you see in dogs are often distance increasing and distance
decreasing signals. These signals are there to signal a desire to increase or
decrease distance. Dogs communicate this desire through their body language
and vocalizations. The truth is that space can be a big pet peeve for dogs.
Some Dogs Need Their Space
While dogs who are social butterflies are eager to interact and tend to
communicate their desire to get closer, other dogs who are less social and
more aloof will want to do what it takes to keep distance.
Both distance increasing and distance decreasing signals are reinforcing,
meaning that if the dog attains the goal of increasing or decreasing space,
the signaling behavior will continue and persist. In other words, if the dog’s
body language and vocalizations are successful in yielding to their spacial
needs, they will likely continue to practice such behaviors.
Dogs should not be punished for exhibiting such signals; rather, it’s
important to work on the underlying emotions that are causing such signals to
happen in the first place. This can be accomplished through desensitization
and counterconditioning. There are also special classes for dogs with space
and reactivity issues; we will discuss them further in the next paragraphs as
we delve deeper into details on distance increasing and distance decreasing
signals in dogs.
Profile of a Dog Wishing to Increase Distance
Whether your dog is reactive towards other dogs or is simply on the aloof side
and not too eager to mingle, he will often remind other dogs of his desire to
be left alone. The desire to increase distance is not only seen in cases of
dog-on-dog aggression, but can also be seen in dogs that are not comfortable
with a particular trigger or situation.
Several of these signals make the dog look bigger so his “go away” message is
more effective. Let’s take a closer look into these signals and their purposes
from Rover’s perspective. For sake of clarity, we will be talking about
distance increasing signals directed towards other dogs, but it can be
virtually anything that makes a dog uncomfortable.
**** In this case, Rover is using ‘his words” to tell the other dog to stay
away. The dog wishing to increase distance may growl and bark in hopes of
deterring the other dog. If the other dog leaves, the dog exhibiting distance
increasing signals will continue to bark or growl any time another dog comes
near since it worked.
Should another dog ignore the bark and come closer, expect the barking display
to become more dramatic as if the dog was saying, “What part of my display you
don’t understand? Go away!”
In this case, the dog is pulling towards the other dog to send him away. This
may look like a bold move, but it’s often based on fear. Imagine a person
scared of cats stomping his feet loudly as he walks towards the approaching
cat and making hissing noises to send the cat away.
In a similar way, Rover is lunging and barking to tell another dog to get off
his turf—which in this case is his space.
More and more dog owners are letting their dogs wear a yellow ribbon to
communicate their dogs need distance. If you see a dog with a yellow ribbon,
give him space!
Also known as raised hackles, piloerection is a way the dog makes himself look
more intimidating and bigger. Basically, just like a cat, the dog’s hairs on
his shoulders, back, and tail may raise up. While in several cases
piloeraction is a sign of arousal and can be even seen in play, depending on
its context and accompanying body language, it may be a “go away” signal. This
is more of a reflex, triggered by the dog’s autonomic nervous system.
A stiff body is a dog’s way of warning another dog to move away . . . or else.
You can see this stiffness when a dog is protecting a bone from another dog or
is uncomfortable with another dog coming too close. It’s just another way to
While stiffness and a direct, fixed gaze may seem pretty innocent, consider
that should the other dog come closer, the dog might escalate his behavior
which can at times result in an attack.
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There are several more distance increasing signals such as snarling, hard
eyes, tight or fast wagging high tail, and whale eyes, to just name a few.
Many distance increasing signs are thankfully more dramatic than anything.
These “spats” may sound and look awful, but often entail mostly ritualistic
According to Alexandra Semoyonova, author of the book, The 100 Silliest
Things People Say About Dogs , ”the domestic dog by nature is anything but
an aggressive species.” Keep in mind that accidents do and will continue to
How to Deal With a Dog Sending Distance Increasing Signals
In this case, your best bet is going to the root of the problem. Suppressing
these outward manifestations with punishment will only make matters worse.
You’ll need to go to the root of the problem.
Through desensitization and counterconditioning, you can help your dog. Great
methods are Leslie Devitt’s “Look At That” (LAT), open bar/closed bar by Jean
Donaldson, and Grisha Steward’s Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT).
You want to employ a dog trainer/behavior consultant well versed in learning
theory and behavior modification to get a good grip on these methods. These
methods may seem easy to follow, but having a professional guide you through
is essential to get it right and prevent setbacks which can have deleterious
Ambivalent Dog Signals
Interestingly, some dogs offer ambivalent signals that sit at the border of
distance increasing and distance decreasing signals.
These dogs aren’t bi-polar, they are just confused and unsure on how to
proceed, so they may be wagging their tail happily one moment and barking the
next. Sometimes, you can identify what makes them make a change of heart,
other times you can’t. Employ the help of a professional.
Working your dog in presence of another dog can help him attain better impulse
For Chen via Unsplash
Profile of a Dog Who Wishes to Decrease Distance
On the opposite side of the spectrum are dogs who are social butterflies,
eager to go meet and greet other dogs. These dogs want to decrease distance as
much as they can. Too much of a good thing though isn’t good either.
Some dogs may actually be so eager to reduce distance that, because the leash
prevents them from reaching their goal, they get greatly aroused and develop
barrier frustration. This may look a lot like actual aggression when the
underlying dynamics are different. As in distance increasing signals, distance
decreasing signals are often reinforced if the dog gets closer to his goal.
Following are signs of a dog wishing to decrease distance.
**** In this case, the dog lunges and pulls on the leash this time to go say
hello. He’s very excited and often so aroused and over threshold that the
owner is unable to distract him. This is the party dog, the one who loves to
mingle. It’s almost if the dog was saying “Woohoo! I love other dogs so turn
me loose to meet them!” explains certified professional dog trainer and
behavior consultant Christine Hibbard.
**** As mentioned, some dogs get extra frustrated when they want to decrease
distance but are prevented by the leash so they may start barking while they
lunge. The behavior may often be confused with aggression, but requires a
slightly different type of behavior modification, which is another reason why
it’s important to consult with a behavior professional.
Other distance decreasing vocalizations are dogs who bark asking for attention
and who use high-pitched barks to incite another dog in a game of play.
What You Can Achieve at a Reactive Rover Class
The play bow, which is a meta-signal, is another means of communication asking
for a closer interaction–in general. In this case, the dog lowers his front
legs, keeps his rump in the air while his tail wags happily in hopes the other
dog comes closer and starts to play.
****In this case, the tail wagging is friendly, with the tail kept midway–
parallel to the spine, and activated by wide side-to-side sweeping motions or
circular motions. This tail wag indicates the dog is eager to go greet and
meet and is a distance-decreasing signal. But don’t rely on this only! There
are more parts of the dog you should look at to get the whole picture! The
tail is only a fraction of the whole dog!
****The dog’s overall facial expression is of happiness and eagerness to
enjoy the encounter. The eyes are soft, the ears are forward, the mouth is
often open. This facial expression is the canine equivalent of a warm smile.
How to Deal With a Dog Sending Distance Decreasing Signals
Many distance decreasing signals aren’t problematic, but at times they may
lead to disobedient, rowdy behaviors. “He just wants to say hi” is a common
remark of the owner of the overly social dog who pulls to go greet another dog
and the owner loses the grasp of the leash.
This though can become problematic when the other dog is not that eager to say
hello. Things get also problematic, when the dog develops frustration and acts
as a reactive Rover.
Working systemically under distractions is a good way to let Rover develop a
more impulse control. This is why I often recommend group classes to my
clients. When dogs are taught obedience in the presence of other dogs, they
gain more composure.
If you are training your dog on your own, find a way to organize training
sessions with other dog owners in your area. The Premack Principle, is also a
great way to reward calmer behaviors. Dogs who get reactive due to barrier
frustration would benefit from enrolling in Reactive Rover classes. Look if
any trainers organize these near you.
Ultimately, it’s almost as if dogs live surrounded by a bubble. Some dogs are
willing to share their bubbly space, while others would rather have you out of
it. These are just a list of common signals, and there are—of course—many
Always use caution when approaching an unknown dog; you may be dealing with a
dog that doesn’t like you to be in his space and isn’t eager to be pet. For
more on this, read my article on signs a dog doesn’t like to be pet.
Questions & Answers
Question: The cues for increasing and decreasing distance for dogs seem
so similar. What are the subtle differences between the two?
Answer: The main difference is the emotion. It is therefore important to
pay close attention to the body language of a dog who wishes to interact (soft
eyes, eagerness) which is different from a dog who doesn’t want to interact
(stiffness, hard eyes). It takes quite some practice to learn how to read dogs
to see the difference. To make things more complicated, sometimes dogs may
seem like they want to interact and then make an abrupt change once they are
closer. Knowing the history of the dog is helpful too (dog loves to play with
dogs and gets along, but just gets frustrated when he cannot greet them).