Is Reacting Really Reactive?

August 20, 2013

Sierra snarl smallThis past Saturday, I took Bodhi and Sierra for an early morning walk. As we navigated the hills and pathways of our local park, we passed a few regulars. It was encouraging to see how far their dogs had come. There was the woman with two Chihuahua mixes, one of whom used to lunge and snarl each time we passed. Between her good handling skills and my own dogs’ improved behavior, encounters are now much less stressful. Another positive pass-by with a gentleman and his poodle mix, and I was feeling pretty good—that is, until we passed the man with the Akita.

The Akita was on leash, and the pair was headed in our direction. There was plenty of room for us to pass each other on the paved walkway. The man veered toward one side, while Sierra, Bodhi and I kept to the other. Things were going well until Sierra lunged and barked at the dog. Now, I’ve worked long and hard to modify this habit, and for the most part, Sierra’s done very well. So when she erupted, no one was more surprised than me—except, perhaps, the Akita. The dog reacted in kind, and the man instantly gave the dog a hard correction by roughly jerking the choke chain. I cringed as the dog did the same, and I told the man, “You know, it really wasn’t his fault. I’m sorry, but it was actually my dog’s fault.” He mumbled something under his breath about it not being okay that his dog had behaved like that, and continued on his way.

Was it really so wrong for the Akita to react to a dog who was lunging and barking at him? What if a total stranger ran up to you and yelled in your face? Should you be expected to stand there and behave politely? Of course not. And yet some of us hold dogs to the impossible standard of never barking, never lunging, never…being dogs. Our knee-jerk reaction to barking and growling is understandable. It’s jarring, it can be frightening, and it can certainly portend trouble. But those behaviors are also perfectly natural, and in some cases, totally appropriate.

I remember more than a few training appointments over the years where a mother would complain that each time her child entered a room, the dog would slink away. It turned out in all of those cases that the child had been doing something the dog had found unpleasant. Hugging or petting in a less than gentle way was often the issue. Little girls in particular love to hug dogs, while dogs view hugging as restraint. So what’s a dog to do? He could growl a warning, which in dog-ese is perfectly polite, but would likely elicit an, “Oh, no! The dog is growling at my child!” True, growling at a child is cause for alarm, but that’s frequently where the thought process ends. The next step, which is to figure out why it happened, is frequently overlooked. Alternately, the hugged/offended dog could do the least violent thing by simply leaving the area. But active avoidance doesn’t seem to be an acceptable reaction to many people, either, as they want the dog and child to interact.

I’ve also been called in to a number of training appointments where the issue was aggression between two dogs who lived in the home. It was interesting to see the number of cases where it was assumed that one dog was starting the skirmishes when, in fact, it was the other. The first dog would give a hard stare or other signal that went unnoticed by the owners—all they’d see was the second dog reacting, which was interpreted as starting a fight. Again, the dog was simply reacting appropriately, given the situation.

Whether it’s reacting to another dog’s actions or those of a human, dogs use what they’ve got: body language and vocalizations and, sometimes, their teeth. If we can calmly assess a situation where a dog is being “reactive,” we will be much better able to respond appropriately and address the root cause of the dog’s behavior, rather than overreacting ourselves.


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Is This Play Okay?

August 7, 2013

2 snarls edit crop smallA woman asked me recently whether I thought the play happening between her own dogs was worrisome. She was concerned because one dog would nip at the other’s legs almost incessantly, and the behavior seemed like the genetically watered down version of how wild animals bring down prey. The dogs were about the same size and, outside of play, got along well. Without seeing video or knowing more it was impossible to give a definitive response, but my question was, “How does your other dog react?” She said the other dog didn’t seem to have a problem with it at all, and play normally continued with both parties enthusiastically involved. That, then, is the answer—it’s not a problem.

Dogs have their own individual styles, both during play and while issuing an invitation to play. While some use the traditional play bow to engage another dog, others will stand still and bark repeatedly. Some will nip at the other dog’s legs. In my seminar “Dissecting the Dynamics of Dog-Dog Play” (now on DVD), there’s footage of all of those things, plus a scene where a very rude Dalmatian tries to get Sierra to play by slapping her!

Sometimes, things that seem to us like potential trouble really aren’t. When dogs growl and bark at each other, that can look frightening to an onlooker and seem like a precursor to aggression. Certainly, if the vocalizations get more intense and deeper in tone, intervention might be warranted. (Other warning signs include fewer pauses, stiff bodies, and over-arousal.) But very often, dogs who are growling and barking during play understand each other perfectly well, and are having a grand old time.

It often happens that one dog chases another relentlessly, and we wonder if the chasee is getting overwhelmed. In that case, simply stop the action and ask the dog who’s being chased if he’s okay with it. No, I’m not suggesting you grab the dog and say, “Pardon  me, but is that peppy poodle a bit much?” What I mean is to calmly, gently, and carefully take hold of the dog who’s doing the chasing. (Ask permission first if it’s not your own dog.) Give the other dog a moment. Does he run and hide behind Mom or take cover under a bench? If so, the dog probably was getting overwhelmed, and an enforced play break is in order. But you might be surprised at how many times the other dog will run a short distance away and then dash back, or give other signals that he wants the play to continue, thank you very much!

Don’t get me wrong. There are times to interrupt play before it escalates into aggression, and a multitude of things that can go wrong, particularly among dogs who don’t know each other well. Just being different of breeds can create dislike and misunderstandings. For example, many dogs don’t love the way Labs or Goldens play, as they tend to be very in your face. Some dogs find bully breeds, with their “bull in a China shop” approach, overwhelming. And I’ve personally watched more than a few dogs who are playing with a standard poodle, have a thought bubble over their heads that reads, “I thought it was a dog, not a pogo stick!”

The better dogs know each other, the rougher play can be. And the better we know our own dogs, the better we can tell whether they’re okay with what another dog is doing. But when we’re not sure, the bottom line is always this: just ask the dog.

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