They’re Dogs!

A while back at our local dog park, a German Shepherd mix was running the length of the chain link fence that separated the areas designated for smaller and larger dogs. A small dog on the other side raced back and forth with the Shepherd. They seemed to be having a fine time. No one was getting snarky, no one was upset, and in fact, the Shepherd wasn’t making any sound at all. Then I noticed he was wearing a shock collar. I asked the woman why, and she said, “Because he barks when he plays.”
After recovering from my own moment of shock, I said, “..and?”
“And,” she responded, “it bothers people.”
After a brief discussion where I explained that it’s natural for dogs to bark when they play, just as it’s natural for kids to scream and yell when they play—not to mention that if people come to a dog park they ought to expect to hear dogs barking—she seemed willing to consider that her dog might not need the collar after all.

Sierra and I normally visit this dog park before it gets crowded, and then take a hike around the surrounding area. Unfortunately, this morning a severe headache precluded me from being able to do any strenuous walking, so we stayed in the dog park longer than we usually would. I knew the usual early-bird dogs and people there, so I wasn’t too concerned about Sierra getting into trouble. She got along fine with the three dogs, all of whom were a bit smaller than her. Then a sweet mixed breed about her own size entered the park. She’d met the dog before and they’d gotten along fine. When the dog entered, the three smaller dogs rushed up to greet her. I allowed Sierra to as well. Everything was fine until one of the smaller dogs got between Sierra and the new dog. She snarked at him. Yes, I know, snark isn’t exactly a technical term, but I think you can visualize what I mean. Teeth were shown, a sound was made, and had there been a dog-to-human translator handy, it would have read, “I like you well enough, but for now, kindly stay out of my way.” The owner of the small dog became concerned, but because I could see that the small dog understood Sierra’s communication and responded by backing away, I wasn’t worried. I was glad the woman hadn’t made a move toward the dogs, because sometimes a stiff-bodied, barely breathing, stressed out human can turn a small canine “discussion” into something much worse.

I’m not saying snarkiness is a good thing, and I’m not excusing it, either. But I think that many times our own stress levels spike very quickly when we see what is, to dogs, normal communication. It makes sense for us to have a primal fear response to seeing those long, curved teeth. An internal alarm bell rings: Danger! Run away! To dogs, teeth can mean danger too, of course; but it’s interpreted in a quick, intuitive flash that takes in the entire context and situation as well as the actual body language. I’m guessing this primal fear we seem to have (some of us more than others, depending on how much time we’ve spent around dogs) is the reason so many people freeze up when they see two dogs get into a fight. Even if one of the dogs is theirs and the dog is clearly in danger, it’s as though the person is rooted in place.

Thankfully, the vast majority of canine communication is understood more clearly by other dogs than it is by the average dog owner. And while we should always be advocates and protectors for our dogs, and remain ever vigilant, sometimes it’s good too to remember that they’re dogs, and their behavior must be interpreted in the canine context, not the human one.


15 Responses to They’re Dogs!

  1. Angela N says:

    Nicole, I have a question on dog behaviour that’s been bugging me for a while. I have an intact male Belgian Shepherd who is now 17 months old. Around the time he turned 10 or 11 months, he started getting “ganged up on” by groups of dogs at the dog park. This dog park has a good reputation, although there are the usual issues–lack of supervision of dogs by their owners, lack of general knowledge about dog behaviour, etc.

    My boy has always been very good at “deferring” to other dogs, and in these situations, he was not challenging any of the other dogs; he just came around looking for someone to play with, and some subset of the group would immediately go stiff and advance on him in a threatening way–not play at all. The other dogs would chase him when he ran away, again, not playfully. Body language on their part was stiff bodies, up on their toes, arched tense necks, tails up. My boy would try to make himself small, crouching down, ears back, tail tucked.

    My question is, do you think this has anything to do with him being intact? Or is it just a case of wrong place at the wrong time?

    Thank you!

    • Angela N says:

      Oh–I forgot to mentioned, that after two or three repetitions of this, at different times with different groups, we quit going to the dog park and found other ways to continue dog-dog socialization and get exercise.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Angela,
      I think you’re right, it most definitely could have something to do with the fact that he’s not neutered. Intact male dogs have a different scent, and it’s possible that’s actually the reason that they get into more male-male dog aggression situations. It’s not that they necessarily start them, but that other dogs immediately know they’re intact. And at 11 months he was at that adolescent-going-into-early-adulthood age, so it would make sense that the other dogs might start packing up on him then.

      I’m very glad to hear that you’re not taking him to the dog park anymore, and finding better ways to continue his socialization. 🙂
      Take care,

      • Barry says:

        If I could add..I believe dogs overall will take issue to anything outside the ‘normal’ parameters of dog behavior..meaning anything like apparent insecurity, overly forward..the outside of median I suggest the intact condition could constitute for the ‘un-norm’ as I would think most social active dogs today are altered, likely 97%..this would/could most certainly be interpreted as ‘different’ and something not of norm from our neutered and spayed can be so cruel in the playground..and our dogs as well.

  2. Karen says:

    I hope you convinced that woman to lose the shock collar. That is like sending the kids outside to play and telling them not to make a sound. How unreasonable is that? Let that poor GS be a dog!!!

  3. Often I see this situation where exactly what you describe does happen when the human intervenes over a “snark” (and I completely understand what you mean by snark) which can quickly escalate into more. I am not saying that we let the dogs sort things out all the time, but perhaps being a little less willing to go in for the fix so quickly over minor issues or getting a good recall and calling our dogs back to us rather than going in is a better way to handle a situation like you describe. Sometimes less is more. Thanks so much for the article, I enjoyed it.

    • wildewmn says:

      Kirsten, yes, exactly! If one or both of the owners can reliably call the dog back to them, a fight can often be avoided. Wait until you see next week’s blog… 😉

    • Steve says:

      I think the dogs see us as escalating the issue in those cases and simply follow our lead.

  4. I have always found the dog park a great way to learn about the subtleties of canine behaviour and the not so subtle behaviour of humans. Thanks for your post. I will pass it along on my social media platforms.

  5. Hazel says:

    Completely understand the “snark” having a snarky boy myself. I learned quickly the different snark and growl sounds for him and now know when to say “be nice”. Once in a while it goes from snarky to our-&-out fight quickly and I use my own human growl/snark of “enough”. We, as humans, really need to learn to let dogs be dogs and not make them into human kids even tho we call them fur kidz.

  6. Michelle White says:

    I was introduced to you by someone on Victoria Stilwell’s website. Just ordered some of your books. I like what I am reading here. I have been training dogs for a little over two years and am happily convincing pet parents that there is a vast difference when dogs offer a behavior to earn a reward vs. offering a behavior to avoid punishment. It breaks my heart when I see a dog being misunderstood by it’s human! Holding my tongue and being polite is often a challenge. Dogs are simple…we humans make things complicated! Thanks for sharing your expertise, I look forward to all that I am about to learn from you!

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Michelle, thanks for all the good work you’re doing with pet parents. And agreed, we are the ones who muck up the waters, not dogs! 🙂

  7. I have a German Shepherd and people do complain alot about how they bark when they are with other dogs. I do however think that using a shock collar to control something like that is uncalled for. Dogs bark its life. I believe that people need to get more educated on how dogs interact. Just because my GSD barks while playing does not make him agressive. Thanks for a great article 🙂

  8. girllovesdogs says:

    Nicole, what are your thoughts on barking, I had worked in a dog day care where barking was not allowed. Employer explained to staff that barking is rude and unnecessary
    and we would regularly have to stop dogs from barking in this setting.

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