“He just came at me, with no warning!”, “All of a sudden, he just lunged at the other dog!”, “One minute, he was fine; and the next minute he was attacking!” Whenever I hear statements like this, my response is usually “No, probably not. He was probably giving off plenty of signs that he was scared or stressed, and he wanted to get away from whatever was bothering him. You either didn’t see those them or didn’t understand them.”
In an earlier post, I addressed the topic of dogs being overly reactive to each other Dog-to-Dog Reactivity | The Animal Nerd. But what about dogs reacting to people?
Most so-called dog aggression problems are completely avoidable. They want to avoid conflict with people or other dogs, and they want to avoid frightening situations. But we often do not give them the ability to do so, or we inadvertently prevent them from getting away from the thing that’s bothering them. The entirely predictable result is that the dog gets even more stressed and is pushed over his behavioral threshold, resulting in him being labeled “aggressive”.
There is a simple, common-sense way to prevent any injury, drama or fallout from your dog becoming overly stressed and acting out: Be aware of what signals your dog is broadcasting, and remove him from the situation that is stressing him out.
The fact is that dogs are communicating all the time. They are a pretty darned intelligent species with sophisticated non-verbal communications abilities. Not being handicapped by a spoken language, they are constantly communicating with us, with other dogs and with the world in general. They fill every waking moment with indications of two things: How they are feeling and what they plan to do in the next few minutes. And make no mistake, they understand and react to the non-verbal messages that we are constantly broadcasting. They’ve been living with us for over 20,000 years and they read our facial expressions, posture, gait and our other unspoken signals like a book.
Your relationship with your dog is unlike the ones you have with your human friends and family. You control where he goes, what he encounters and limit his options for what to do in the situations in which you place him. Since you control everywhere he goes, it becomes your responsibility to learn canine body language, particularly your own dog’s non-verbals, so you can avoid putting him in danger or in highly stressful situations from which he cannot escape.
When your dog meets a new person, it is up to you to control the situation. This means that you are responsible for watching your pup and making sure that he is not anxious or overly excited:
Is his tail held at a neutral height, relaxed and wagging? Or is it lowered or tucked, indicating anxiety? Is your dog holding it stiffly with a slight wag? That can mean stress or a warning to other dogs to stay away. What are his ears doing? Are they relaxed and held closely to his head? Are they held tightly back, indicated fear? Are they held alertly in a forward position? What about his back? Is it held stiffly or even slightly rounded? Or is it relaxed? Is he turn his head away from that person, indicating that he wants to avoid contact? Several illustrated examples of stressed or relaxed behavior can be found here: Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu).
And what is the other person doing? Is he or she approaching you dog head on, locking eyes with him? Is he or she bending over your dog in a threatening posture? It is up to you to watch your dogs’ responses to that person’s actions and determine if your dog is becoming alarmed or anxious. Remember, whether the other person knows it or not, he and your dog are having a body language conversation and your dog is responding to everything he does. For example, I recently worked with a shelter dog who was extremely wary of new people. It took me a little while to accept me and to be relaxed and comfortable with me on or off leash, and we became friends easily. The next day, I saw her react to the presence of a particular volunteer (a large, bearded man), during which she engaged in distancing behaviors, growling and barking. I had him change his approach to her: Instead of approaching her head-on and looking directly at her, I had him walk towards her at an angle without making eye contact then stand facing 90 degrees away from her. She immediately relaxed, slowly approached him and accepted treats from him. Following that meeting, he was able to leash her up and take her for walks without any drama.
The bottom line is that it is up to you to know how your dog displays stress, anxiety or happiness before you put him in situations were he can potentially get in trouble. You need to understand that he is constantly telling you what his emotional state is and take that into account when you are taking him places or putting him in contact with other people. You need to understand when he’s telling you that he wants to approach or avoid something or someone. When you with your dog and other people are involved, look at him from time to time and ask yourself “If it were up to him, what would he do right now? Stay? Leave?” Because that is exactly what he is saying to you.
There are several very good sources that can help you get a better understanding of your dog’s body language:
Rugaas, T. (2005). On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals 2nd Ed . Direct Book Service.
Abrantes, R. (1997). Dog Language. Wenatchee, WA. Dogwise.
Aloff, B. (2005). Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide. Wenatchee, WA. Dogwise.
Handelman, B. (2008). Canine Behavior, A Phot Illustrated Handbook. Wenatchee, WA. Dogwise.