The Tipping Point

husky attacksAt the dog park this morning, my dogs and I were on the “small dog side,” as it was empty and there were two dogs on the “big dog side.” I was happy to see the gentleman and his two dogs, as our dogs like to run the fence together. They’re all friendly, and everyone gets exercise. It’s all good. But five minutes into the festivities, a couple showed up with a dog I’d never seen before, and entered the big dog side. Apparently the two dogs in that space had never seen the dog before either, and ran over to him. The new dog and one of the two began to get very stiff-legged. Hackles were raised. Growls were heard. Suddenly the air was thick with tension. “Ziggy,” warned the owner of the two dogs, “Be nice.” Ziggy got even more aroused. “Come on, Ziggy” he cautioned again, his voice even more tense. Fortunately, the dogs did not fight, and after a few more moments, they separated.

Every dog owner is familiar with that tense moment when two dogs are aroused and may or may not fight. You can feel the tension coming off the dogs in waves, and it is almost impossible not to be stressed yourself. But what an owner does in that moment can affect whether the dogs will explode into violence or not. It’s a common response to do exactly what Ziggy’s owner did, to admonish the dog in a stern, warning voice. And for some dogs, it may work. Unfortunately, for many, it only adds to the unease. Although it might seem counterintuitive, calling your dog’s name in a high, happy voice can be the better option. If you’ve conditioned your dog through training that his name is his cue to look at you, although the situation is worrisome, you can still get his attention. You can then call him to you, thereby averting a full-blown fight. EDIT: I am adding in this edit after someone brought up the important point that there could be a possibility, once your dog was called away, of the other dog attacking from behind. Clearly this is a judgement call that the owner must make. In my mind, the situation had not yet gotten to that point, but it does bear mentioning to use caution and assess the situation carefully.

The same type of scenario often happens when two dogs meet on leash. Many owners are not savvy in the language of Dog, and don’t realize that the dog they are bringing their dog over to meet is not friendly. Very quickly, the dogs are nose to nose with rigid bodies, tails held high and waving stiffly, hard staring at each other. Here we have not only two dogs who are already tense, but there is the factor of the tight leashes, which adds even more pressure to the situation. There is a tipping point that is being approached: will the dogs go past it and fight, or will the moment pass peacefully? Again, what the owner does at that moment can make all the difference. Tightening the leash even more, which is often the knee-jerk reaction for we humans, can make things worse. If the dog has been trained to give attention at hearing his name and to do a “walk-away,” meaning he follows the owner away from something, the incident can end peacefully. Or, the owner could simply call the dog’s name in a high, happy voice, followed by, “Come!” I’m not suggesting that these tactics will work in every situation; they won’t, if tension levels have already escalated past a certain point. Once a dog is over threshold—past the tipping point—he’s not capable of mentally processing those verbal cues, any more than a person is who is involved in a raging argument would respond if you walked up and asked for the time. Emotion has taken over, and it’s too late for coherently processing thought.

Just think how wonderful it would be if everyone trained their dog in simple things like attention (look at me when your name is called), the recall (come when called), and walk-aways. It’s really not difficult, and there are plenty of resources out there (including the Train Your Dog: The Positive, Gentle Method DVD). And what about having early education on canine body language in schools? It’s estimated that almost half the homes in the U.S. have dogs. The majority of dog bites happen to children, who haven’t been taught not to do things that cause dogs to become defensive. But I digress. The point is, if your dog is involved in one of those moments where things are looking dicey and could go either way, don’t add to the tension. Flip the script and call your dog’s name in an attention-getting, happy voice instead. You might be surprised at how well it works.
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and blog at Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified by email of new posts. You can also sign up for my Training Tips Tuesdays by going to and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You’ll get free tips on training and behavior weekly! You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.








12 Responses to The Tipping Point

  1. Christine Schragel says:

    I train these things to all my dogs as priority. Still don’t you think that there is a time even if you have a social secure dog where it needs to trust it’s instinct and experience where it cannot respond to the human cue to turn as it would mean it gets the other dog in its neck?

    • wildewmn says:

      Good point, Christine. There are definitely times to hang back and let the dogs communicate. I don’t think it would be possible for anyone to give advice that would work for every situation. Clearly the owner needs to be able to read the situation and not put their dog in danger. But I will add an edit in to the post, and thank you for bringing up this point.

  2. Jenny H says:

    Several things here alarm me.
    Firstly I would never take any dog into one of these small “dog parks” regardless of whether they were separated by size. Not safe not sensible.
    Secondly I desperately try to stop my dogs from ‘fence running’. it not only makes the dogs more reactive, but can be dangerous, since while fence running dogs don’t seen to look where they are going. One of my dogs broke one of her front legs very badly when fence running 😦 I use fences to teach my dogs calm behaviours around other dogs. Fences work brilliantly for teaching your dog to remain calm around unknown dogs.
    And finally I am really not a fan of “look me in the eyes”. I want my dogs to be alert to me, and that is better demonstrated by the way they hold their ears. Having had a number of nervous reactive dogs, I know that they are much calmer when they can actually see what they are worried about. I taught my dogs to “look at that . . . ” well before Leslie McDevitt wrote her book. But I do it differently from her method. I want my dog to actually LOOK at the strange man/small dog/kid on a bike/horse/semitrailer, while I name and describe what it is. I will even draw their attention to anything that I think will alarm them before it is close enough to worry them. This can help enormously by alerting the scary thing (or its person) to the fact that my dog is nervous.
    If we get into a unforseen situation I never ask for a look at me! We go straight into our ‘Emergency U-turn’, which we practise as a game at home.

    • wildewmn says:

      Thank you for your comments, and your opinions, as always. I wonder whether you have a blog of your own you’d like to mention here? I’m sure people would be interested in reading it, as you always have so much information to share.

  3. Zsuzsa says:

    Very useful read. Thank you Nicole for taking the time to write it. I know this information but shared this with clients and other owners hoping to take it on board since it is coming not only from me now lol.

  4. pupluv88 says:

    Every dog encounter has many variables and may or may not be a possible volatile situation. We learned our lesson from meeting other dogs-both times my dogs were attacked.
    I decided they don’t have to meet other dogs nose to nose anymore. They seem happy to me, and I don’t think they miss anything.
    Great post. Thank you.

  5. juliabarrett says:

    Interesting. I’ve had such an encounter- unexpected- when Jake bounded happy as all get out up to a dog he knows. We both thought all would be well, as did the dog’s owner. But the dog, a huge St. Bernard, tried to rip his head off. I called to Jake in a happy excited voice and he ran back to me. The St. Bernard then lunged for his tail- she missed. The owner was shocked at her dog’s behavior. Happens sometimes between dogs. I’m just glad he came running back and the St. Bernard was too slow to come after him. We both took our dogs and went our separate merry ways.

    I have made a change though in what I do on neighborhood walks in order to avoid unwelcome dog/dog encounters. Jake wears a vest that says – IN TRAINING – in large letters. When people make a move to approach, I ask Jake to sit/stay on my left side, away from them. If necessary, I say – “He’s working.” They leave me alone. It’s not that my dog attacks. He never has. But he will respond if pushed. And there’s something about GSDs that makes other dogs’ hackles rise. Then there’s Jake’s MOST GIANT HUSKIES ARE MY MORTAL ENEMIES rule…

    • Jenny H says:

      Poor German Shepherds. People tend to be afraid of them, and their dogs sense this fear. Learn to be relaxed about our big softies and your dogs will feel safe. There’s nothing works so well as being relaxed yourself.
      I wonder if the problem with Huskies isn’t their blue eyes?? Unless a dog is used to light coloured eyes they can be very alarmed by them. I thought all my dogs were OK about pale eyes, until he, of the beautiful golden eyes, came across another dog with golden eyes! He had never before seen a dog with such eyes!
      And by the way, if you have a Border Collie, teach it to NOT stare other dogs in the eye. Most dogs hate being stared at, and German Shepherds are bigger than Borders!

      • juliabarrett says:

        LOL! Border Collies and Huskies stare. I think that’s part of the problem, although Jake and Border Collies get along great. Huskies also tend to have hair that sticks straight out and tails that stand straight up. Apparently that alarms Jake. However, his bestest bud is a small sleek male black and white Husky with blue eyes. They love each other! My husband and I always say- No matter who starts it, the GSD is blamed. 😉

      • juliabarrett says:

        Jake has gorgeous golden eyes! Gotta love the GSD!

      • Jenny H says:

        My Mum always said that she couldn’t stand her own body odour when she was afraid. You probably need to be as ‘Asperger’s person who lives in a household where perfumes aren’t used to appreciate this.

    • juliabarrett says:

      Hmmm. I don’t know. I’m not afraid of Huskies. I quite like them. The only dog that ever gives me a twinge is some sort of giant pit bull. Yet Jake doesn’t react to my twinges. He likes friendly pit bulls.
      When it comes to GSDs, perhaps dogs are responding to their owners’ fears. Many dog owners fear large dogs in a general sense, especially when they have a little dog. However Jake definitely gives Huskies a wide berth or stares right back at them. If there is a breed I can say he’s not fond of, it’s Huskies, although as I said, one of his best friends is a Husky.
      Jake is well behaved and well socialized. But he’s not perfect in this sense– I will never claim that he never ever reacts to another dog, whether it’s a positive or negative reaction. On or off leash. He gets along just fine with most dogs and is responsive to my commands. It’s my job to see that possible confrontations remain just that– possible confrontations, not actual confrontations. I never assume. I’m realistic about dog behavior. Dogs react to each other. Sometimes even the most well-behaved dog behaves like a dog. The trick is to anticipate, to see the signs of an impending confrontation, to pay attention to dog body language, especially at an off-leash dog park.

%d bloggers like this: