When it comes to reading a dog's body language, you must look at the entire picture.
"If a dog is yawning and stretching, but just woke up, it is not a stress sign. If he's baring his teeth but going for a ball, he's not being aggressive," Penny Layne, certified professional dog trainer, said at Monday's "Listen With Your Eyes" presentation at Monroeville Public Library.
If, however, a dog is exhibiting danger signs, such as leaning forward, puffed hair on its tail, ears up and forward, mouth closed and/or direct eye contact -- do not approach.
Instead, calming signals we might display include turning sideways, turning our heads or yawning.
"Dogs are trying to figure us out," Ms. Layne said. "We are helping them understand by speaking their language."
The free program was sponsored by the library and The Law Office of Mark A. Smith.
Assisting in the demonstrations was Ms. Layne's 10-year-old Labrador retriever, Fawn, who is a certified service dog. Videos were also used; one clip was of a news reporter who was bitten by a dog in a charged situation that could have been diffused by studying the dog's body language.
Ms. Layne, owner of Aunt Penny's Pet Sitting and Dog Training, said observation is key to understanding man's best friend. She advised looking at the animal's eyes, ears, teeth, paws and tail positions.
For instance, any of these -- teeth bared, ears back, frozen stare or a tight, closed mouth -- could signal pending trouble.
The probability of an aggressive response is heightened if the animal feels trapped with no escape route.
"Nervous dogs are more likely to bite," she said.
Dogs diffuse fear or aggression with other dogs, and with people, by using calming signals when feeling threatened. Those include looking away, yawning, sniffing, licking its lips, crawling while wagging its tail with enthusiasm, and more.
Dogs also signal one another, as when playing: a sudden drop to the ground is the canine's way of saying, "enough, playtime is over."
When you want to pet a leashed dog being walked by its owner, Ms. Layne recommends these steps:
• Stop, turn and remain sideways;
• Ask the owner if it is OK to touch the dog;
• Talk "baby talk," such as "Hi, doggy" and tap your leg;
• If the dog approaches, make a fist and allow the dog to sniff it;
• Pet the dog under the chin for two seconds, more if he nudges for more;
• Do not pet the top of the dog's head, which is threatening in dog language;
• Do not attempt to kiss a dog. Instead, blow a kiss or kiss one's hand and pat the animal. Dogs, generally, do not like people close-up in their faces.
"There is always something to learn," participant Rose Ravasio said of the session.
The Ben Avon woman is a volunteer at Animal Friends, where she is also mentored about canine body language.
Hannah Kendzerski of Penn Hills said the presentation taught her to be cautious of dogs displaying danger signs.
Milo Szecket, 11, of Mt. Lebanon said he learned that a wagging tail does not necessarily mean a dog is happy.
His sister, Lily, 9, said she will ask a pet owner before petting an unfamiliar dog again.
Ms. Layne said the No. 1 problem in the human-canine relationship is our greeting, which she described as "looming and reaching."
"This is how most people greet dogs," she said. "If dogs could change one thing about us, it would probably be this."
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: email@example.com.