If Looks Could Kill

bully stick 3 smallerIn my canine body language seminars, I explain that a hard stare is never a good thing, whether in dogs or on a New York subway. (Trust me, I grew up in New York—It never leads to anything good.)  The problem is the emotion linked to it. A hard stare is instantly understood by dogs on the receiving end as a warning. A threat. It’s the movie trailer for the feature “If Looks Could Kill.” Depending on how the other dog responds, a stare may be met with submission, or it could trigger aggression.

Ironically, although hard stares are easily interpreted by most dogs, they are often misunderstood or missed completely by people. I was walking Sierra on leash along a park trail one day when I spied a woman walking a bull mastiff. I’d seen the dog before, and knew he could be reactive with other dogs. The trail was narrow and, to her credit, the woman moved the mastiff off the trail and had him sit so we could pass. I thanked her. But as we passed, Sierra turned her head, looked at the dog, and glared. That was it! The mastiff dragged the woman toward us, intent on dismantling Sierra piece by piece. I got between them, the woman got control of her dog, and no one was hurt. She walked off without a word, but I would bet she thought her dog was at fault. After all, Sierra and I were just passing by when her dog lunged at my poor dog, right? Wrong. Sierra’s hard stare started it all.

Many times when two dogs are fighting in the home, the owner believes one dog is causing the fights, when it’s really the other dog who is delivering the hard stares that start the episodes. You really can’t blame owners; unlike a wagging tail or a growl, a hard eye is not something we’re taught to look for. In the best case scenarios, a trainer is called who explains that it’s actually the other dog who is causing the issues, and teaches the client to be observant for this bit of body language. Hard stares are missed constantly at dog parks as well. Sadly, I’ve seen many instances where the dog who reacts to the hard stare is the one who gets punished.

Still, a hard stare is not necessarily a bad thing. Just like a growl, it serves as a warning. If heeded, it can stop an aggressive incident before it begins. For example, one dog has a bowl of food. Another dog walks over. The first dog gives a hard stare. The second dog, fully aware of what that means in the Language of Dog, backs off. Aggressive incident averted. Although hard stares are often accompanied by other telling body language such as a stiff, still body and possibly a growl, they are often missed. Hard stares are one of those subtle, sometimes fleeting pieces of canine body language that every owner should know.
You can find my books and seminar DVDs at http://www.nicolewilde.com, and my art
   at http://www.photomagicalart.com.

9 Responses to If Looks Could Kill

  1. sschiavoni says:

    I learn something from you with every blog entry. I wish you lived closer to me. I could use you! Thanks for your great blog!

  2. Bobbie says:

    This is so true. I have a 90 pound female gsd who is somewhat dog reactive, and it’s the hard stare that’s the clue whether she’ll be puppy friendly or reactive because she rarely barks or growls until it’s too late. The problem is that from where I am holding the leash, it’s hard to see her face, so I have to assume the worst and keep her at a safe threshold when we come across strange dogs. Thanks for addressing this important issue.

    • Jenny H says:

      When I had ‘aggression’ problems with my German Shepherd, I learned to recognise a sudden ‘stilling’ of the eye. I knew then to turn her around in my ’emergency about turn’ before she erupted.
      I also learned to keep a very close eye on other dogs’ eyes.

  3. Lauran says:

    Bobbie, I know the feeling. My Smooth Collie can turn a hard stare into a fabulous playful game or a lunge to destroy with equal lightening speed. It’s so hard to determine how he will react, and how the other dog will react, I find it very hard not to transfer my nerves down the lead.

    • Bobbie says:

      Right, Lauran! And my girl is much, much stronger than I am. I have to be ever watchful, though most of the time it never goes beyond the stare.

  4. juliabarrett says:

    Yes. I’ve experienced this. My dog may give the hard stare or he may be on the receiving end of the hard stare. 99% of the time the stare is the worst that happens. Jake, my GSD, controls himself pretty well with most dogs. Some dogs do, however, set him off. As the GSD, he usually gets the blame regardless of who started it.

    • Bobbie says:

      Yes, the GSD, second only perhaps to the pit bull, will get the blame.

      • Lauran says:

        I agree, people’s lack of knowledge or their perception of a breed is generally not helpful when it comes to the bigger dogs. Smooth Collies are very, very rare in the UK so most people assume my guy is a Doberman mix (Especially as he is tricolour) or some kind of semi-wild hunting/coursing hound! When my old Rough Collie would bark at people or dogs he never got the sort of negative response my current dog receives…My older dog was less reactive, yes, but I wonder how much that was to do with other people “reading” him as friendly because he looked like a big hairy teddy bear and therefore not passing bad vibes onto their dogs to instigate a nervous/aggressive stance from them.

  5. Jenny H says:

    I wish more people recognised this. The real problem is with Border Collies — they tend to stare unblinkingly at other dogs. Because it is “just” the Border Collie stare, their owners tend to never understand why their ‘perfectly innocent BC” is constantly being attacked by German Shepherds 😦 amongst others.

    And it is SO easy to simply put your hand over a dog’s eyes if it is upsetting another dog.

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