At 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.
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.