Startle…and Attack?

January 16, 2020

Lustiger LabradorDogs have an instinctive startle reflex, just like humans do. Upon hearing a loud noise or being touched when not expecting it, most of us, human or canine, will startle. It’s a good thing we do, because that automatic response keeps us safe from predators and other dangers. The startle reflex is often put to use in traditional temperament tests where, for example, a ring of keys is dropped near a litter of puppies. All the pups naturally startle, but some will run and hide while others will recover quickly. This test is meant to gauge the pups’ confidence level.

Although a startle reflex is a good thing, some dogs when startled don’t simply jump or flinch. Instead, they display what might be perceived as aggressive behavior. For example, some well-meaning owners have kissed their sleeping dog on the head, only to be bitten in the face. This reaction on the part of the dog is simply that—an instinctive reaction and one that, if there were something to truly be feared, would protect the dog. I imagine that just like people, some dogs run or cower when startled, while others lash out. This is not the same thing as aggression, although that’s how it often gets labeled.

A dog snapping at something that startles him at close range is understandable. But my girl Sierra does something different; she doesn’t snap at my husband or me, but if a sudden noise across the room startles her—for example, the popping of a champagne cork—she’ll race directly to it and snarl at it. (This does not impress the champagne, which goes right on bubbling.) The more unfortunate scenario at our house is when both dogs are lying on their beds, which are next to each other, and Sierra is startled by someone dropping something like the television remote. Her immediate response is to jump up and attack Bodhi! Poor Bodhi, who’s normally asleep at the time, never fights back and there’s never any actual damage. Although Sierra is all bluster, and the redirected defensive reaction to being startled is understandable, it’s still disturbing. She’ll do the same thing indoors or out if she and Bodhi happen to be standing close to each other when something startles her. Because it happens so infrequently and is so instinctive, and because there’s no way to completely control every environment, we manage the situation by body blocking Sierra when necessary and minimizing known triggers.

In the case of dogs who startle awake and snap at their owners who have petted or kissed them, one solution is to wake the dog before approaching by clapping hands, stamping feet, or calling the dog’s name. Behavior modification could be attempted, with the goal of the dog becoming conditioned that being awakened is a good thing. (Here’s a step by step protocol from the Dogtime website.) The success of this type of conditioning will vary from dog to dog. I do still find Sierra’s behavior of running at things that startle her or redirecting her take-the-offense reaction very interesting. Do any of you have a dog who displays this kind of behavior? What have you done to manage or work with it? I’m curious to hear!
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