Caution: Too Much of a Good Thing?

On my early morning dog walks, whichever dog is with me (the other is typically out running with my husband) gets a quick run-and-poop in the deserted dog park, followed by a hike in the surrounding hills. Our dog park is divided into large and small dog areas which share a common chain link fence. This morning as Bodhi and I approached, I noticed a couple with a beautiful, long-haired Akita in the large dog space. They had spotted us as well, and were hurrying to leash their dog in order to remove him from the park. I called out that there was no need, and that we’d go to the small dog area instead, as it was deserted. The wife thanked me, explaining that their dog could be aggressive with other dogs.

The Akita stood calmly at the common fence, gazing over at Bodhi without showing any signs of aggression. Bodhi approached to sniff through the fence, and the Akita’s body language remained relaxed. In fact, the dog seemed interested in playing. The wife, already concerned, was walking toward the dogs. “He seems to be fine,” I commented. “Well,” she responded, “Other dogs start with him at the park and then he gets into it. He’s an Akita, you know.” Breed aside (it’s true that there are a lot of dog-aggressive Akitas out there), it’s understandable that a dog who feels insecure or defensive will fight. And it’s admirable that these folks were so aware of their dog’s behavior patterns, and were being very careful around other dogs. I wish more owners would err on the side of caution.

The dogs got along just fine through the fence, but the couple still wouldn’t allow any fence-running or play of any kind. Very soon, they put the dog on leash and departed. I was left reflecting on how, although caution is commendable, it can sometimes take over to the point where the dog isn’t allowed to interact with other dogs at all. Sometimes that’s the wisest course of action, while at other times it goes a bit too far.

Here’s a case where the caution meter has crept too far to the right: on our morning walks, we often pass a man with an adorable adolescent spaniel. Through past conversations, I’ve learned that the dog was attacked by another dog months before. Since then, the man has been adamant that the dog never, ever be exposed to other dogs. He absolutely will not allow the dog to play, and even if we pass on leash and my dog appears friendly and wanting to greet, as does his, he yanks the dog away. It would be one thing if his dog were traumatized and clearly wanted to avoid other dogs, but that’s not the case. It doesn’t take a person trained in dog behavior to see that the dog is a wriggling mass of excitement when he sees other dogs, and he’d love nothing better than to play with them. If anything, the man is the wary one. Now, a dog doesn’t have to play with or greet other dogs to have a happy life, but I feel sad that this dog will have to live the rest of his life without experiencing one of the things he obviously still enjoys most.

Again, being cautious is a good thing, and I wish it were a more prevalent trait among dog owners. But when humans become more traumatized than their dogs by past experiences, if we’re not careful, we can actually overcompensate. If we simply ask our dogs how they feel, we will always make the right decisions. By understanding a dog’s temperament, learning their body language and becoming familiar with their responses, we can tell whether the dog wants to engage with another dog, person, or situation…or not. And while we always have the final say in our role as guardian and advocate, it’s good to remind ourselves to listen to our dogs’ opinions and feelings, too.

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6 Responses to Caution: Too Much of a Good Thing?

  1. thomas Aaron says:

    Good thoughts.

    Dogs also usually/eventually key somewhat off of the owner’s emotional state. An owner who is overly anxious around other dogs is likely to inadvertantly communicate to their dogs that OTHER dogs are something to be wary of.

  2. fearfuldogs says:

    Hope you walk with your business card.

  3. Interesting. I think a calm on leash greeting, being allowed to visit a bit but not run, is a LOVELY dog socialization opportunity for those dogs,and I also do not EVER allow my dogs to “fence run.” Kudos to the Akitas owner for not feeling peer pressured to take this interaction to an AROUSED level!

    • wildewmn says:

      You know, Heather, as I was writing the blog I wondered if someone would mention that. I do allow my dogs to fence run ONLY under very specific conditions, and only with dogs we know. I agree that the Akita could have become too aroused by running, even though he wasn’t showing any signs of reactivity to begin with. So, in short, I agree with you.

  4. I work with aggressive dogs routinely as a dog trainer. The majority of owners, in my experience, exaggerate the aggressiveness of their dogs and even add to the problem with their anxiety. That being said, there are owners who do not appreciate the time bomb of aggression their dog represents.

    • Matthew says:

      considering how misunderstood aggression is, it isn’t really any surprise that owners either “exaggerate” or end up downplaying. I have even see a fairly severe case of fear based aggression misidentified as “being brave and fearless”. When the person told me that I had to bit my tongue an not say “no, the dog is scared out of it’s mind from being left outside by it’s self on the front lawn tied down”.

      I would caution in how much “blame” we lay on owners for their dogs “issues” because of their own anxiety. Yes, fear/stress breeds fear and stress. But there is a couple things that can be easy to forget. The owners own anxiety could be a learn/conditioned response to their dogs issues. that can take time to overcome. to feel confident in the training, the things asked of them etc. they have had X amount of weeks/months even years of their dogs behavior. their own conditioned response won’t change over night.

      The other thing to keep in mind is NOT all situations will be triggered/caused/feed by their own anxiety. If a dog is over threshold, it’s over threshold and NO amount of calm on the handlers part will make the dog calm.

      We need to be careful not to plant the misleading idea that “if your are just calm enough all will be better”. owners being calm is an important factor…but it’s only one of many that may need to be addressed and it can take time for the human to learn new responses/associations too. That walks won’t always be night mirrors.

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