New Virtual Reality Pup Could Help Prevent Dog Bites

By Monica Weymouth

In the moment, most people aren't prepared for how to react to a snarling dog. But what if you could take a couple of no-risk practice runs?

In collaboration with animal behavior experts, the University of Liverpool's Virtual Engineering Centre is developing a virtual reality dog to help adults and children recognize a range of canine behaviors in a safe and controlled environment.

As the user approaches the VR pup, its body language gradually changes to display signs of a dog that does not want to be approached, including growling, teeth baring and lowering of the head and body.

Ultimately, developers hope that the experience will help educate the public about how to recognize signs of a stressed dog and decrease the number of bites and attacks.

Whenever you interact with a dog, you should be keenly aware of his body language, says Courtney Roberts, a certified professional dog trainer at PetCoach San Marcos.

“It's all about body language when we're trying to determine the emotional state of dogs,” she says. “We can't talk to them, so we don't know exactly what they're thinking, but we can pay close attention to their stress signals.”

Signs of a fearful and potentially aggressive dog include widened eyes, ears that are pinned back to his head, a stiff body and the tail tucked low between the legs. Dogs who are defensively aggressive will assume a more forward stance, while those who are more afraid will lean back and attempt to retreat.

Although difficult to do, the first step is to remain calm around a stressed dog.

“When a dog is displaying any sort of behavior that we as humans view as undesirable, we may act emotionally, which can heighten the stress of the dog,” says Roberts. “It's important to remain calm and react with the least amount of emotion as possible.”

If the dog is your own, it's your responsibility as his advocate to quickly remove him from the stressful situation.

“When a dog is displaying fearful behaviors, many people will try to force the dog into the situation, which will only increase his anxiety,” says Roberts. “Don't feel as if you need to fix things in the moment. If you recognize stress signals in your dog, increase the distance of what he's reacting to.”

If the dog is not yours, it's just as important to respect his space. Luring your neighbor's cowering Chihuahua over with a cookie doesn't create a bond, cautions Roberts-it simply adds another confusing layer to an already stressful situation.

“For example, I'm really afraid of clowns,” she says. “So if a clown walked into the room holding a clear suitcase full of cash, I'm conflicted-I want the money, but I'm still just as afraid of clowns. We've just created an anxious experience around the reward.”

If your dog is displaying stressful body language, consult your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical problems, then consider working with a professional trainer. Over time, many issues can be methodically and safely addressed through counterconditioning and desensitization training.