This morning, as Sierra and I were enjoying one of our local park trails, I spied a woman walking along the narrow path in our direction. Her dog was off leash, so I called out to her, “Good morning!” This was as much of a signal to put her dog on leash as it was a friendly greeting. Fortunately, she immediately leashed her dog. As we passed each other, though, her dog lunged and snarled at Sierra. The woman jerked her dog’s leash harshly and reprimanded him verbally.
“It’s okay,” I told her, “It really wasn’t his fault.”
“Of course it was,” she snapped, and continued walking.
…But was it? What I’d seen, and what perhaps the woman had missed, was that as we’d passed, Sierra had given the other dog a look that didn’t exactly say, “Halloo, me fine-furred friend. Top o’ the morning to ye!” (And when did Sierra become Irish, anyway?) If I had to guess, I’d say that look was more along the lines of, “I don’t know who you are, but don’t even think about messing with me.” That look, you see, was more of a hard stare. Normally, if I’m concerned that this type of thing might happen, I get Sierra’s attention, pass the other walker, and it’s a non-issue. This morning, blame it on a lack of sleep and a splitting headache, but I wasn’t paying as much attention. Nothing terrible happened, but I’d prefer that it hadn’t happened at all.
The thing is, hard stares are not at all uncommon. Although other dogs pick up on them immediately, they can be so fleeting that they’re easy for owners to miss. I can’t tell you how many times, as a trainer, I’ve been called to someone’s home and told that one dog was starting fights with the other, only to find that the alleged victim was giving the other dog a hard stare, to which the other dog was simply reacting. In my book Keeping the Peace, which addresses dog-dog aggression in the home, I describe a situation in which an owner believes one dog is jealous of the other, because when she sits on the couch with the second dog, the first one comes up and starts growling and barking at him. What she doesn’t see is that the dog on the couch is giving the other dog a hard stare, to which the first dog is simply responding.
Is it appropriate to respond to a hard stare with a growl or a bark? Well, let me put it this way: If you were sitting on a subway and someone were staring at you in an unfriendly way, would you be likely to smile and say, “Have a nice day!” or would you say something along the lines of, “What are you looking at?” (As for me, well, you can take the girl out of New York…) By the same token (Subway? Token? Sorry…) it’s perfectly appropriate for a dog to respond to a hard stare—essentially a threat—by doing what he feels he must to assert himself, whether that includes growling, barking, or lunging.
Most dogs are really very good at understanding the subtleties of each other’s body language. Again, it’s we humans that can easily miss mini-moments of posturing that are here and gone. But, we can make an effort to pay more attention and learn to pick up on those signals, which will in turn help us to better understand our dogs’ behavior, and to react appropriately.
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