The Threat of Stillness Pt. 2: Rapid Relief from Menace Mode

5_2147 Large guard dog.jpgLast week’s blog The Threat of Stillness received many comments. Some readers had observed that stock still, staring, danger-radiating pose in an unfamiliar dog they encountered, while others saw their own dog display the body language toward other dogs. More than a few asked what to do when it happens.

Before exploring solutions, I want to clarify that the type of stillness we’re discussing is not the stalking sequence’s frozen moment before the dog explodes into chase, often seen in breeds such as the border collie; it’s not the moment preceding a hunting dog’s swift pursuit, or the seconds before the pounce of a dog wanting to play. It’s not even the sort of continual scanning the horizon type gaze that some hypervigilant sighthounds demonstrate. The type of lock and load stillness I’m talking about broadcasts a serious threat. Remember, the still, focused dog is conserving his energy to attack. One reader described it as “the calm before the storm,” and another called it a “marshalling of forces.” Those are both apt descriptions.

Let’s first talk about what not to do. When a dog is so precariously balanced emotionally, it is all too easy to push him over into aggression. If you are the unfortunate focus of the dog’s attention, yelling at the dog, grabbing him, or trying to dominate him is likely to escalate the situation and tip the balance in an unfortunate way. Running away is likely to trigger the dog’s chase drive. As mentioned in the original post, averting your gaze (while keeping the dog in your peripheral view) and backing away slowly is the best option.

Sometimes, though, there’s no space to back up. Years ago, I’d gone to see a new client with a large, male German Shepherd. Thor had a bite history with many, many triggers. He’d been on a long, loose leash held by the owner throughout our session. (This was in the early days, when I still trusted owners to restrain dogs.) Things had gone very well. Thor seemed comfortable with me and the clients were attentive. I was sitting in their living room chair giving homework suggestions when I noticed that the man had dropped the leash. I wasn’t too worried, as the dog had been calm throughout the session. Just then, Thor walked up to my chair and in a slow, purposeful way, placed one of his paws on each arm of the chair, leaned in until his face was inches from mine, lowered his head, stared into my eyes, and issued a low growl. I immediately averted my gaze while turning my head very slowly slightly to the side and down. I wanted to ask the client to call Thor or to him or to grab the leash, but I was afraid the man might do it less than calmly, and tip the balance the wrong way. Since I knew the dog was well trained in basic obedience, I said in my best, cheery trainer voice, “Thor, sit!” Apparently the stars were in alignment because he immediately sat and cocked his head as if to say, “Yes, what would you like me to do next?” My point in sharing this story is to say that in a dire circumstance like this, attempting to switch the dog into another mode just might work.

What if your dog is staring down another in that about-to-explode way? Offense is the best defense, in this case meaning you learn to recognize the signs and situations where your dog might go into this type of posture, and head it off at the pass. But if it’s already happening and your dog is off leash, the goal is to get him back on leash in as calm a manner as possible, without startling him into action. If you have a long leash, you could turn it into a slip lead (pass the clip end through the loop to form a lasso) and then gently and quietly slip it over your dog’s head. Then, try some kissy or clucking type sounds to get his attention, and lead him away. (The lasso lead may be a safer, easier alternative with some dogs than reaching under the neck to clip the leash on, especially since the latter requires you to place your own body closer to your dog’s face.) Be careful, because no matter how much your dog loves you, in such a tense situation there’s always the chance that he might redirect.

While getting your dog back on leash is always a good idea, you might not always be able to do that. A great solution, and one that is best implemented with careful pre-conditioning, is to switch your dog out of Menace Mode into a more relaxed, dare I say even happy frame of mind, much as I did with Thor. How to accomplish this? Simple: use your voice and body language. Call your dog’s name in a happy tone of voice, followed by whatever cue is likely to have the most effect. If your dog is super food motivated and knows, “Cookie!” or “Treats!” use his name followed by that word. If you’ve trained him to follow you at the cue, “Let’s go!” or something similar, that’s what you should try. Again, be sure to use the happy tone you’d use for “Want to go for a walk?” One last alternative, if your dog is very bonded to you, you could simply walk away sing-songing, “Byyyyye, Buddy!” as you go. There are a lot of dogs who, while invested in staring down another dog, will still be a lot more invested in not being abandoned.

Many dogs become conditioned to respond to words like “cookie” or “treat” because every time their owners utter the words, the dogs receive a reward. Imagine if those owners decided instead that the word for “Cookie” was actually “Come!” There would be some amazingly well trained dogs out there…but I digress. Both a conditioned cue like “Cookie” and a “Let’s go!” type phrase meaning to follow you should be trained at home and then practiced in progressively more challenging and distracting situations. In fact, they should be proofed to the point that no matter what type of emotional state your dog is in, he will automatically respond. You should eventually be able to switch that full-on Barking at the UPS Man arousal instantly to Let’s Get a Cookie happy time. It takes some time and effort, but it most definitely can be done, and is a safe, effective way to switch your dog out of Menace Mode.

If the situation is an off-leash dog staring at your dog in that still, threatening way, if you feel it’s safe, stand in front of your dog. If the owner is present, call her to get her dog. If the person does not respond or is not present, such as in the case of encountering a stray, you will have to assess the situation and make a judgment call. Some dogs, while perfectly happy to threaten other dogs, are not willing to stand up to a person; many dogs, if you simply say, “Go on!” in a certain tone of voice, and perhaps wave them away, will leave. (Again, this is a judgment call; doing so could set some dogs off.) Especially in a situation with a stray dog, you must be careful not to escalate the situation. Scattering a handful of treats behind the dog is a safe way to defuse the situation so that you and your dog can walk away. (There are many other ways to deter an oncoming stray dog, but that’s a topic for another blog.)

Hopefully none of you will ever have to face a truly dangerous situation with a dog who is in that still, menacing mode, but if you do, I hope the ideas in this blog will help you to get yourself and/or your dog out of the situation safely.

8 Responses to The Threat of Stillness Pt. 2: Rapid Relief from Menace Mode

  1. Cathy says:

    We experienced this with a rescue dog that had been living with us for 2 1/2 months. My 19 year old daughter (who he had always adored) is lucky to still have her face in tact. It was the quickest, most frightening lunge/snap I have ever seen – unfortunately we didn’t notice the “stare” immediately (no idea how long he had been doing it) so there was no time at all to divert him. Thanks for these 2 posts – they will do a tremendous service to a lot of people.

  2. threenorns says:

    just a quick point before someone else comments on it: by teaching “cookie” or other such “happy time” command, you’re *not* “rewarding” your dog for being dangerous.

    the dog is not going to asssociate the treat with the stare-down because you’re not just stuffing a treat in his face without warning – you’re issuing a command (creating an event) and when he responds to *that* event, he gets the treat. there’s a disconnect betw unwanted behaviour and the treat.

    • Sandi Smith says:

      Good point- I was wondering about that too- that it might seem like a reward. Like some people who softly say to a barking dog “stop that” and then pat it. That does nothing and reinforces the bad behavior.

  3. This is something I quickly learned my dog will do when she feels her resources (ball, food, treat) are threatened. Sometimes she just doesn’t like the other dog for whatever reason I can’t pick up on. Or the other dog isn’t spayed and that is a trigger for the stare down. Overall she is excessively friendly with strange dogs so these are all rare instances because I manage the appearance of the ball for when there are no other dogs around. When it comes to treats I have started rewarding the nearest dog first and then immediately her… a sort of, “here is your reward for calmly waiting”. Now the antecedent for a reward is another dog getting a reward. But another time that she does the frozen stare is with children. I’d day any one under the age of 15. We have don desensitizing work and when there is no way around someone approaching her or touching her under this age, I make a big happy fuss about it and she gets excited and focuses on me for rewards. Trust me, there are events. Children will run up to us from the sides or behind and just HUG her with no warning. Her response is negative but I never yell, just call her to heel and keep walking with mostly silence as though it’s no big deal. The “calm before the storm” is accurate. If I see another dog do it to my dog or vise versa I immediately recall or make a funny noise to break the tension and move along. It is important not to “punish” the dog. I believe that when you yell, get tense, or use force, the dog feels that the threat is even more real and pending than before and that feeds him into becoming aggressive. Importantly, I NEVER let my dog off leash. She is always on either a 4 ft leash, a hands free leash for jogging and training, or a 50ft lead for fetch that is usually tied to a tree or trailing behind her that I can step on if need be.

  4. nyc says:

    i do know exactly what stillness you mean (when they freeze, head goes down, etc), unfort my shitzu growing up did this all the time. now i have a rescued pit and when she meets new dogs, sometimes she gives off very dominant body language (head tall, ears forward, tail high, hackles raised, etc) and then sometimes she literally flops over on her belly to meet them. fixed dogs in both situations, both sexes in both situations. i dont know why she is so extreme in both situations and what the difference is. when she meets another dog using dominant language and she does the same, there is also that frozen stillness as they sniff each others faces. is this the same stilllness you are talking about here? i’m asking to try to understand if this is always going to be a potentially explosive situation – and maybe understand why sometimes she meets dogs and she seems so aggressive and then she goes and flops over on her belly for teacup yorkie

    • threenorns says:

      yes – when the two dogs sniff each other and go very very still, that is a powderkeg. it happens with mine – the problem with my dog is that even though he’s not aggressive (in the slightest), he’s very “HI!!!!! HI!!!! PLAY! PLAY! PLAY!” . think of the time you were at a mall and a random toddler came charging up out of nowhere and flung his arms around your legs nearly sending you to the floor on top of him or the time you were at the club and met this guy who was super nice except he’d had just a couple too many and was ***everybody’s**** bestie – slapping backs a bit too hard, laughing a bit too raucously, talking too loudly. nice guy, wonderful fellow, just… um…. i remembered i left the kettle on – seeya, buh-bye.

      one thing that hasn’t been mentioned in these articles (that i recall) is dominance scuffling.

      this is when two dogs are sorting themselves out, street-cred wise. it’s very scary to watch but even with all the explosions and drama, at the end of it, there’s nothing worse than a lot of slobber-soaked fur. if one dog yipes, that’s often enough to cut it off with the other dog acting all apologetic. when it’s dominance tussling, seriously it’s best to let them be – they’ll sort themselves out quickest and either start playing or start ignoring each other. get yourself in there, and your aura of fear and anger will add to the situation and it will quickly degenerate into what you were afraid of in the first place – you become your own self-fulfilling prophecy.

      if my dog charges up to a dog that’s not well socialized or has “issues”, his dervish play spin (his fur pops out in all directions, he spins in a tight circle, and flomps down into a play bow with head on one side and ears up in neutral forward) can be misinterpreted as an attack and then the other dog goes bonkers.

      the trick is to watch the heads and noses. if dandy is sniffing the dog and the dog does not sniff but instead places his head so that it is alongside dandy’s, that’s a dominance test. that’s when dandy stops sniffing, goes still, and then slowly and deliberately, he’ll turn so his chin is over the dog’s shoulders. most often, the dog backs off and the owner and i make our escape but sometimes the dog responds by trying to jump on top of dandy’s shoulders and then the drama starts.

      hopefully the owner knows about dogs or is willing to trust me on this and we’ll stand there and wait for the idiots to get it out of their systems. otherwise, i tell the other dog’s owner to get their dog back (it’s always easy to break dandy off from an encounter – he always looks at me when i speak) and i bring dandy back. then i have them put their down into a down-stay and i put dandy in a down-stay. the other person and i chat for a few minutes and, once the dogs are calm, we go our separate ways.

      doing it this way means the dogs won’t just pick up where they left off next time we run into each other.

      • betsy wallace says:

        Great description! So many owners miss this posturing of dogs and the posturing can lead to trouble

  5. Lynda says:

    Great article. On a side note, I just want to mention that, instead of substituting “cookie” with “come,” how about the other way around? “Come” usually brings my dogs, fairly quickly. But, when I really want my dogs to come, NOW, I shout “cookie.” Works EVERY time! 🙂

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