You are Not Your Actions

Nic n Phantom pen smallA trainer asked me recently about a dog’s puzzling behavior. The five-month-old herding breed would growl when being picked up or handled. That wasn’t the puzzling part—we’ve all seen that! The thing that confused her was that after she’d held the dog, with him growling, growling more intensely, and finally stopping, she’d released him…and he laid down right next to her.

I can see how that might seem confusing. After all, the dog wanted nothing more than to get away when he was in your arms, so why didn’t he go running once he regained his freedom? The answer might not have been obvious, but it is simple: the dog liked you—he just didn’t like the things you were doing to him.

I remember many years ago hearing someone (I believe it was Sue Sternberg) say that the two situations in which a dog normally becomes aggressive are when you try to make him do something he doesn’t want to do, and when you try to stop him from doing something he does want to do. I have always found that to be true. Think about it: your dog doesn’t want to get into the car, so you try to load him in, and he growls. Or, your dog really wants to get to a piece of food lying on the floor. You stop him, and he turns and snaps at you.

During the years that I worked with wolves and wolfdogs at a sanctuary, I handled many of the residents. I was never bitten while trying to force one of them to do something they didn’t want to do, mainly because I never tried. Sure, we had to get wolves into crates to go to the vet’s office or to move to another enclosure, but it was done carefully and with planning, and happily, without bodily harm to anyone. I spent a lot of time sitting in the dirt, waiting for the fearful ones to feel comfortable enough to approach, and eventually, petting and stroking them calmly to the extent that they would accept it. Forcing them to be handled would have been counterintuitive and counterproductive.

It’s a different situation with dogs, since some handling will surely be necessary throughout their lives. There will be inevitably be times we have to do things they might not like. Gradual desensitization beforehand can help to prevent the type of scenario described with the herding pup. But there’s something more: just as we differentiate between not liking a person and not liking something they’ve done, dogs seem to do the same. Sure, an unfamiliar dog might not ever trust you if your introduction is at a grooming salon where he’s terrified as you clip his nails. In the trainer’s case, she’d probably established enough of a relationship with the dog before picking him up that he rebounded nicely. With our own dogs, these wonderful, loving creatures seem to make the same kind of differentiation we do; they might not love everything we do, but they love us and continue to want to be our loyal companions. And for that, we should be profoundly grateful.

14 Responses to You are Not Your Actions

  1. CH says:

    What are your thoughts on a dog who stiffens, flattens her ears, and gives whale eye when receiving affection (from select individuals), but goes back and nudges their hand for more when they have stop? She will also sometimes growl if the affection goes on too long.

    • Rachel Ray says:

      The flat ears and doe eyes are a sign of respect and submission. They are trying to be as non threatening as possible. This doggie LOVES you to pet him, he just wants you to see how respectful and submissive he is to you.

      • Terri Klimek says:

        I believe that dog is showing all kinds of signs of being uncomfortable with the situation and hoping that the person backs off. These are not signs of submission but of fear. Please read about calming signals and signs of stress in dogs. Also, always respect the growl — it is a warning signal that the dog is not comfortable with whatever the situation is.

      • Jerry i says:

        Rachel, CH said Whale eyes not doe eyes. That is two significantly different things.

    • Joe says:

      Flattened ears, whale eye and a body that stiffens up are all fear responses in dogs. It sounds like the dog in question has a mild to moderate fear of “select individuals”. I would be curious as to what these individuals all had in common. Are they only men? Only people with hats on? Maybe even it could be just the way they approach this dog. They could be frightening the dog by leaning over them, or maybe hand going over the head?

      As far as going back and nudging the hand for more. I’m stumped there. Perhaps that dog really enjoys the affection a lot, and that enjoyment is much more dominant over the anxiety that the dog is displaying?

      Growling if the affection goes on too long. Maybe the dog has enough confidence to approach, but once they are in that situation the dog realizes how close they are to that which originally frightened them and the dog begins to go into that flight or fight response.

      Just my 2 cents, but Nicole would know a lot more on this.

      • CH says:

        Her body language is definitely fearfull, not submissive

        She does this not only with strangers, but also with a few women whom she’s known since I adopted her at 6 months.

        I try to tell them to respect her signals, but they believe that since she is approaching them, nudging them and asking for more, that it is okay to keep petting her.

        I fear one day she will be pushed to far and bite.


      • Hazel says:

        All of these are signs of fear response. I can somewhat address the nudging – Dusty (my fearful one) will go up to smell someone as long as they are not looking at him. As soon as they look at him or speak he is back to the whale eyes, stiff body and gone. Some feel comfortable enough to advance as long as on their terms. I always tell people to ignore and let him decide just how far he is willing to go.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi CH,
      The body language you describe is that of a dog who is fearful. Similar to the scenario described in the blog, the dog nudges the hand for more affection because she does seem to like the person and wants affection; it’s just that the petting itself frightens her. Make sure there’s no petting over the head, and that it’s done in smooth, firm (but not too firm) strokes rather than a pat-pat type of thing.
      Growling when it goes on too long is understandable too. Again, she’s conflicted. She wants the attention but then the handling becomes too much. I suggest keeping the petting sessions very brief and stopping *before* she ever growls. That way she’ll develop a better association with being petted. 🙂
      Take care,

  2. Jerry I says:

    I would have this dog checked for pains as well. Just to be on the safe side. Sometimes it has to do with the way we hold them also. A dog should be trained to be handled within limits.

    • wildewmn says:

      Thanks Jerry for making this very important point. Any time a dog has issues with being handled, it’s important to consider whether there might be a physical reason behind it.

  3. LisaH says:

    Such a beautiful, loving photo. And I love the size of Phantom’s head compared to your’s!

    I also agree with the main point of the article. My dog may not like grooming – wiping wet or dirty paws, removing thistles or ice balls, nail clipping – but he is a gentleman and tolerates it cuz I’m the one doing it, and I’m working as gently and respectfully as possible.

  4. Sonya B says:

    Great topic. I get the question many times “if he/she doesn’t like it, why does he/she keep coming back to me”. You answer the question beautifully.

  5. Cheryl says:

    I’m experiencing this with my dog right now. Left him with the Kong in the crate and upon returning home, I want him to leave the kong in the crate and come out. All he does is growl at me. I don’t dare reach in because he will snap at me too. This is his normal guarding behavior and I just let him be for a bit. Eventually, his desire to leave the crate overcomes his guarding of the kong. If I really want him out, I throw down some high value treats and out he comes.

  6. Lola says:

    Great post, Nicole!

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