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.
Keeping the Peace cover for web newest
Speaking of aggression issues, pre-orders are rolling in for my upcoming book “Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home.” Clearly, this is an important issue to trainers, owners, rescue workers, shelters, and more. Publication is scheduled for April, although I’m hoping it will be sooner! You can pre-order as well as read the full Introduction and Table of Contents here.






36 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.

    • Jackie Phillips says:

      I have taken my dogs to dog parks all over the San Francisco Bay Area for over 30 years. I have had very positive experiences and continue to take my dogs there. In fact, I am going to another one on the beach and coast tomorrow, with a group of well behaved and socialized dogs.
      I find that the majority of people who don’t find dog parks safe generally have dogs who are not safe around other dogs. They have aggression problems with other dogs and then blame the other dogs for having the issues, when in fact, it is their own dogs who are under socialized and undertrained.

      • wildewmn says:

        Jackie, I’m glad for you and your dogs’ sake that your experiences have been positive. And I believe you that your dogs are well behaved and socialized. But blaming a lack of safety at dog parks on those who worry about their own dogs’ safety does not make sense. There ARE unfortunately people who bring dog-aggressive dogs to dog parks. That is the reason people “blame other dogs for having the issues”–because they DO. I find it amazing that in 30 years of attending dog parks you’ve never encountered a single aggressive dog. I truly hope your luck holds out.

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        30 to 40 years of positive experience isn’t luck.

        Generally the people who have negative comments about dog parks say they are negative because they don’t go to them because they can’t get their dogs inside because the dogs aren’t social. Well behaved dogs don’t pop out of the birth canal. They are trained and disciplined and socialized and taught. It takes work which most people aren’t willing to do, and then say that other dogs aren’t friendly.

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        How many people here have Therapy dogs they take to senior homes or airports or prisons or schools or even walk your dogs down a crowded urban Street or through a busy urban shopping center?

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        I never said I never encountered an aggressive dog. I said my experiences have been positive. Two different things.

      • Jenny H says:

        I judge the US type ‘dog parks” by what I have seen and heard about from others. I would never ever take any of mu dogs into such and environment because I know they would hate it! As would I if my Mum had taken me to a crowded playground when I was a kid. It is very, very easy to blame others — but a German Shepherd does not need to be attacked by another dog and then blamed because the other dog was the one that got hurt! And I do NOT need to take my Mad Speagle into a crowded dog playground and let her approach all other dogs without any invitation. I actually find Milly more of a problem. The German Shepherds and Kelpies simply do not want to play with strange dogs and so will not approach them. Milly will go up to any dog regardless of the dog telling her not to.
        The crowded dog play parks I’ve seen are too small to allow for any dog’s private body space. This in NOT a problem for the dog — it is a problem for the ‘play area’ — badly thought out, too small too many dogs allowed in at the same time. These seems to be an assumption that all dogs are mad Speagles and simply all want to play with any and every dog they meet. And any dog that doesn’t like it must be ‘dangerous! 😦

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        “I judge the US type ‘dog parks” by what I have seen and heard about from others. I would never ever take any of mu dogs into such and environment because I know they would hate it!”

        So, let me get this right. You are judging something that you would never do and have never done? You hate something that you have never done and are basing your opinion off of what others have told you? Really? You might want to rethink that illogical idea.

        Unfortunately, I find that extremely common about dog parks. People who dislike them have never actually been in them, but have made up their minds. Think at little bit here, people. Critical and logical thinking seems to be missing here.

      • Jenny H says:

        Jackie Phillips, I have had dogs that I used to take to aged-care facilities. Trick and Musical Freestyle demos, as well as meeting the residents. With one of my German Shepherds, I did demonstrations for a ‘Pet Care” day at a Primary School. Every child in the school who wanted to shake hands with her, did. And several kids from each class put her through her paces over a series on jumps. I not longer do those visits due to my own lack of mobility, but the current German Shepherds compete in Obedience and RallyO with me. They are an utter delight to work with.

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        And you came in contact with people who were afraid of dogs in general and didn’t want the dog near them? What did your dogs do in response? I am not talking about performance events. That is different those are dog people who are used to being around dogs. I am talking about non dog strangers who don’t want to pet the dog because they are afraid of dogs. That is the whole point of this blog: some people think that dogs will react negatively to people who are afraid of them.

        For example, I just got back from taking my dog, June, a registered and very experienced Therapy dog, to the Oakland Airport, for our regular visit around the airport as part of the Information Services department. Clearly half the people who we passed during the four hour shift were afraid of her, including children and adults, and wanted zero contact. No problem. We just kept walking. The other half wanted direct contact with June and she allowed all petting and contact. June is not any type of protection or guardian breed like the German Shepherd. She actually is a Mixed Breed from Thailand and looks like an Ewok from the Star Wars movies. She is extra fluffy and cute and cuddling and about 30 pounds, yet people were still afraid of her because she was a dog. She didn’t care at all. She walked right passed them and didn’t react at all. That is the point. Well behaved, trained and socialized dogs DON’T react to people who are afraid of them. Ill behaved and under socialized dogs handled by clueless people will react to everything.

  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!

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        Dogs don’t sense fear and react. That is all myth. That is obvious if you have had a therapy dog who is around people regularly who are afraid of dogs. I take my dog to visit people in both a very large senior home and at an international airport and we regularly come across people who are afraid of dogs. We just pass them by and visit with the people who do want the visit.

        Also, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where all types of cultures and backgrounds mix and merge and we regularly come across people on our walks who are afraid of dogs. My well behaved and socialized dogs don’t respond. We give all people space as we walk down the sidewalk. That is common respect for all people. I bring treats and we practice on focus and rewards. Has worked well for years.

      • Jenny H says:

        Dogs certainly DO sense fear, and anger, and just about every other emotion.
        My dogs react very very badly toward people who are afraid of them. Now even I can sense when someone is afraid simply by their body language – dogs can also smell the fear on a human.
        If you don’t believe me then read Paul Owens’ books.

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        Let me respond to your comment one piece at a time.

        “Dogs certainly DO sense fear, and anger, and just about every other emotion.”
        Nothing big here. Human beings can tell fear and anger and other emotions also. Any human or dog that is exposed to many things (through socialization) can do exactly the same. There is nothing unique in dogs that humans can’t do. And, the more socialized a dog is, the better a dog is. That is why Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs should be well socialized and well behaved so that they don’t overreact to things that are meaningless.

        “My dogs react very very badly toward people who are afraid of them.”

        My response would be that only under socialized dogs who are not used to be around a wide variety of people would act negatively towards people. My dogs don’t do react that way and no dog I have ever had as ever reacted that way. And the only dogs I see responding negatively towards people doing nothing are under socialized and poorly trained. That is why socialization comes in: to teach a dog about the wide world around them.

        “Now even I can sense when someone is afraid simply by their body language”

        Nothing new there. Any person who has been in the world enough can tell when another person is afraid of them. That is all part of human socialization.

        Look at the post that you included. Their article is based on a single study in Italy several years ago. Far from science. Remember, also, that just because a person a doctor or does a study, doesn’t make anything they do automatically be fact. Look who is paying for the study and what their motives are.

        The whole point is that whether a human or animal can tell a person or another animal is afraid of them is not a new thing. A poorly socialized person or animal will react negatively. A well socialized person or animal won’t respond at all and ignore them, or try to make friends with them because a well socialized dog or person is not offended by a person afraid of them. They don’t take it personally. They are friendly and accept that others have their own responses and it isn’t affected by their own response.

      • 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.

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        Your mom could smell her own fear? What?

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        Remember that German Shepherds and dogs similar to them like the Malinois are commonly used as police dogs and military dogs, and have for decades, in a wide variety of countries, so why should people not be afraid of them. They are used in defense and attacks and people from a wide variety of cultures have seen that all their lives. I personally am not a fan of the breed for many of these reasons and more and I give any GS I see a very wide berth all the time.

      • Jenny H says:

        Because, m’dear, the reason the German Shepherds were for years favoured as ‘police dogs’ was because they were reliable, And did NOT attack except when cued by their handler, AND could be reliably called off. You wouldn’t want a trigger happy police dog, would you!
        I suppose that you, being afraid of German Shepherds, are very wise to give them a wide berth — since they will react to your fear!!

        Please, please give mine a wide berth. They do not need any incitement to feel insecure!

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        One of the reasons I dislike German Shepherds is because so often their handlers are truly clueless and the dogs are ill behaved. They rely on their dog’s appearance and size to be the bully and not train their dogs. That is why police and military use them: because of their size and menacing appearance and not because of any temperament since behavior is not genetic. Lack of training or purposeful aggression training will determine the behavior in a dog. For you I am guessing that your dog is aggressive due to your lack of training and you blame it on other people who don’t like your dog or don’t like you.

      • Jenny H says:

        My German Shepherds are definitely NOT aggressive. Anything but. But, like me, they do not like strangers in their face, and they especially do not like aggressive small terriers yapping dire threats at them.

      • Jackie Phillips says:

        Here are your words: “My dogs react very very badly toward people who are afraid of them.”

        What is the connection to people being afraid of your dogs and strangers in their face as you recently posted? Either way your dogs are reacting poorly to something where there is no threat. There is no threat to your dog if someone is afraid of them. That person won’t come near your dog or you, so there is no connection to a stranger in their face.

        You also mentioned about a happy terrier in their face. Where did that come up? Who mentioned about a happy terrier in your dog’s face?

        So, please explain the first sentence. How badly do your dogs react to a person who is afraid of them? Are you saying that a person who is afraid of your dog is down in their face? I hardly think so. A person who is afraid of a dog is going in the opposite direction and will be no where near your dog, so how are they in their face? How does your dog react to a person who is afraid of them? What exactly does your dog do?

        You seem to be saying a lot of opposites here, which doesn’t make sense. Please explain.

      • Jenny H says:

        Sorry Nicole. My absolute last post.

        Jackie Phillips says:
        March 6, 2018 at 2:10 am
        Here are your words: “My dogs react very, very badly toward people who are afraid of them.”
        What is the connection . . .

        I do not think that I have said ANY opposites.
        1. Reacting badly does not mean aggression.
        2. Often people who are afraid of dogs will try to pat them– don’t ask me why! I try to tell people to simply wait for the dog to approach them, but they seem hell bent on going up to my dogs to pat them — or otherwise to pick up a stone to throw at them, or a stick to hit them with. Oh, yes, I was accused once of having an aggressive dog, because she hid behind me when a stranger tried to pat her, despite being asked not to.
        3. Yes, people who are afraid of dog will come up near them, or shout at them or me.
        4. Cringes, barks. More self protection than aggression.
        5. I’m pretty certain that I NEVER said a ‘happy’ terrier. YAPPY I think. Small terriers seem to be hell bent of killing any dog larger than itself. Terriers are generally very aggressive to other dogs. I took on an unwanted dog once who turned out to be more terrier than anything else. She was unwanted because the other dog had torn a hole in her side, and he was the working dog on the property. She continually attacked the other dogs here — I rehomed her BEFORE any of my dogs became exasperated enough with her to defend themselves.

        Enough already!!

  6. Jackie Phillips says:

    When I am walking my dogs on the street, I have a blanket policy that no other dogs for any reason are allowed up to my own. That takes away the issue of having to decide if the dogs are friendly or not and if the person has control. I say no to everyone. Has worked well for many, many years. Takes out all the guess work.

  7. wildewmn says:

    Folks, it’s great to be passionate, and disagreements are part of the nature of the blogosphere. But if your tone becomes nasty, which I see starting to happen with some of these comments, your comments going forward will not be approved and will therefore not appear on the site. Everyone has an opinion, and no one knows it all. Be civil.

  8. Jenny H says:


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