Overhead Dread

chibigpupilscropBack in the days when I co-ran a rescue center for wolves and wolfdogs, we sometimes brought ambassador animals to educational events. If the events were held outdoors, we had to screen carefully for banners, flags, and other overhead objects that were likely to flap around and scare the animals. This fear of things overhead is not limited to wolves and wolfdogs; many dogs also have a case of Overhead Dread.

Here’s a classic example: A child approaches to pet a dog by extending a hand palm-down over the dog’s head. The dog cringes and perhaps moves away. Sure, some dogs have learned to tolerate this type of greeting, but there are still plenty who actively avoid it, and others who will take the offense and snap or bite at the offending hand.

In contrast, this next example is something most people don’t think about. Many of my training clients with small dogs can’t seem to get their dogs to come to them. When I ask to see what they’re doing, they call the dog, the dog runs toward them…and stops just out of arms’ reach. Why? Because that dog knows that once he reaches the owner, she’ll swoop down and scoop him up. Now, there’s nothing wrong with holding your dog (or so I hear, said the woman who’s never had a dog she could actually lift). But it’s easy enough to avoid that swooping part by crouching down, turning to the side, coaxing the dog to you, lifting, and then standing up together, or else getting the dog to jump up on an ottoman or couch and then picking him up. Soon enough, the dog is coming in close when called.

Even trainers and other professionals who work with dogs and generally know better sometimes forget to keep this common canine fear in mind. I have seen many professional trainers shake the hand of a client directly over the dog’s head. If the dog were fearful, a bite wouldn’t be entirely surprising. I recently held my breath as I watched a pet photographer lean over a frightened dog to adjust a human subject’s jewelry. Fortunately, the dog didn’t bite, but he easily could have. I’m not exempt from making an over-the-head mistake, either. Back in the ‘90s, when I practically lived at the shelter as a volunteer, the one and only time I was bitten was when I’d taken a small, fluffy white dog out to meet a prospective adopter. When it came time to put the dog back in the pen, I leaned over her oh-so-cute fluffball pen-mate—and got bit in the face. It didn’t break the skin, but it was certainly a wake-up call. And it was entirely my fault. Had that dog been a 200-pound rottweiler, chances are I would have been paying much more careful attention to what I was doing.

Even though we “know” certain facts about dog behavior, even when acting accordingly becomes second nature, it’s good to remain mindful. Or, since I can’t pass up a chance at a rhyme, just remember: To avoid Overhead Dread, be mindful instead.

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14 Responses to Overhead Dread

  1. Frances says:

    Just this morning I tried to explain to a dog-loving neighbour why my Toy Poodle shies away from him – he looms, bending over from the waist. At my suggestion, he crouched down – and still managed to bend at the waist, lean forward, and loom over her!

    I quickly learned from my dogs’ reaction to being swooped upon how much tiny dogs dislike being picked up willy nilly – it must be rather like the feeling we get when a lift goes up too fast, but completely outside the dog’s control. I taught them a signal which means “I am about to pick you up”, and it has made life much easier for all of us. They know what is coming, and usually lift a leg to make it easier and give a little hop as I lift. If they really don’t want to be lifted, they move out of reach, and then the process may involve a Wait or Sit. People tend to extend a level of courtesy – or perhaps self preserving respect! – to big dogs but often fail to do the same for tinies.

  2. Sharon says:

    Thanks for this info. I have a medium size mixed mutt that ended up in our yard and lives and she is that way. She is also very wary of coming into the house. She seldom does. She will stand by the door as though she wants in so bad and just can’t do it.

  3. Ruth Rae says:

    I have a Golden who has this problem. But she also dreads people who walk up with their hand out ready to pet her head. She is fine if they keep their hand down and let her sniff then they can reach down and pet. I have started stopping people and asking them to put their hand down and just talk to me while she sniffs and then tell them its now okay to pet. Any other suggestions?

    Ruth Mom Gamma This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)Date: Tue, 28 May 2013 15:19:35 +0000 To: rhrae@hotmail.com

    • wildewmn says:

      Ruth, what you are doing is exactly what I would recommend. I would add that stepping in front of your dog to block them while you’re instructing them helps, too. And if you get the sense that someone might not do well petting properly regardless of your instructions, just say you’d prefer if they not pet your dog. Don’t say “she’s afraid,” though, since people tend to respond with, “Oh, dogs love me!” Instead, either just state flat out that you’d prefer they didn’t, or if you need a reason, say she’s in training. Worst comes to worst, say she’s got a contagious skin disease–I’ve never heard someone say, “Oh, I won’t catch it!” 😉

  4. Jennifer Daly says:

    Thanx Nicole my wolfboy is pretty much ok with gettin petted on d head but my wolfgirl always suns away except from mummy & only when she’s invited me to do so x

  5. The only time I was bitten was when I tried to put a harness over a Yorkie’s head. We had been together for several training sessions and he never showed any fear or aggression to me. It was a very minor nip on my arm but it was a wake-up call!

  6. Paula Perry says:

    my daughter rescued a shih tzu in 2008 that had been abused and abandoned. it took a long time to trust humans, longer than i usually see. sometimes, to this day, she comes when called. but when my daughter bends down and calls her, she always comes. so interesting to read she was doing the right thing without even realizing it. 🙂

  7. Good one. The larger of my two dogs is maybe 14 inches at the withers. So, I’m about 4.5 times bigger. So, if I loom over Zippy, it would be as if a 24′ giant, showing a mouth full of teeth, loomed over me. I’d be nervous.

  8. Spot on, as usual!!!!!Love your posts Nic. Always nice to have reminders…Thanks!

  9. Pam Carlson says:

    Good article. I try to always remind people to come from underneath my dog’s neck, even though my dog is ok with overhead. It’s always safer to be cautious.

  10. Evelyn Haskins says:

    Unfortunately, people WILL bop dogs on the head, thinking that is the ‘right” way to interact with them.

    Because we cannot know when we’ll be accosted by someone like this, I feel that it is important for us dog owners to “people proof” our dogs.

    Teach them that being bopped on the head is a fun game, that being loomed over is a fun game — sort of the like the “Gotcha” game 🙂

    I used to be very cross with my husband for ‘teasing’ the dogs, until I realised that in fact what he was doing might very well be saving their lives 🙂

    I also used to teach “pound- proofing” (aka RSPCA temperament test proofing) in my classes. Teach the dog that it’s OK to have a stiff doll bounced around on the ground in front of them, that a fake hand in their food bowl means a really good treat coming, etc

  11. Jenny Jobbins says:

    Very interesting. My three-quarter wolf, Little Bear, indicated her ‘overhead’ fear whenever a friend visited with her crawling baby. Little Bear would straddle the baby, walking ‘on top’ of him as he crawled about the house. All the time she would glance nervously up at the bookshelves or the overhead clothes airer. She was so determined to protect him from the terrors above that the mother said she would let Little Bear babysit anytime.

  12. Beth says:

    I too have a lift technique, as my pup hates overhead approaches. I squat down next to his side stick out my arm in front of him and he one at a time puts both front paws over it. I reach down, scoop up the hindqtrs and we lift nicely over the tailgate and into the crate. I think he basically taught me this method, by resisting all other approaches.

  13. Kim says:

    Nice! I recently acquired a small JRT who HATES being picked up…for 5 years, everytime her former owner called her he’d pick her up…and for 5 years she’s been telling him she hates to be picked up and carried around but he hadn’t been listening. So she stopped coming when called and instead would circle with anxiety just out of arms reach.

    When she was rehomed to me, I solved this by 1) treating her like an 80-lb dog and simply not picking her up, and 2) patting my slightly bent knee and, while not crouching over her, asking her to put her feet on my knee. From that position only will I pet her. I show others how she prefers to be greeted and people seem keen on allowing this little dog to put her feet on them. I also put a cue to when I am going to pick her up, which I only use in an emergency. Crouching and asking for her to come to my side didn’t work for her. She was still convinced I was going to pick her up and didn’t like my arm coming over her back. So for her, the other method worked well.

    I don’t understand the need to tuck your little dog under your arm all the time anyways…she really likes “being a dog” and using her own 4 legs!

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