Thursday, February 19, 2009

Coming Unglued at the Sight of another Dog

I recently encountered a boy walking a small black dog. I watched the dog as Jack and I approached. The black dog stiffened and paused, his ears became erect and forward, his tail went up and stiffened. I looked at Jack. He slowed his pace and licked his lips a couple times. By the time I looked back to the little black dog, she was losing her composure. She reared up on her hind legs and began to issue what could only be described as a screaming bark. To see a dog that emotionally aroused is not unusual. Sadly, to see what the boy did next is also not unusual.

The boy began to jerk the leash, pulling the dog back suddenly and forcefully. The dog would lunge forward and be jerked back, forward, back. The boy shouted the dog’s name in a hard, angry tone. He shouted for her to “stop.” Jack and I crossed the street as quickly as we could – not to avoid the dog but to give her a chance to calm down and avoid the double jeopardy her friend was inflicting upon her.

Many dogs are never exposed to other canines except those they occasionally encounter on leash. When we fail to provide young dogs with canine interactions from which social lessons can be learned, we deny them an ability to acquire their own language and learn their species’ social customs. We pretty much ensure that they will lack confidence when another dog approaches. When tethered, the inevitability of closeness and contact looms, for most dogs know from experience that we will continue to pull them right along, insisting upon an encounter. The body language within the forced forward approach can make both dogs appear threatening to each other and this miscommunication can lead to stressful, unpleasant encounters. Imagine the anxiety of suddenly finding yourself confronted by a stranger whose customs you have not completely learned and whose intent toward you can not be determined or appears to be threatening.

Consider the social opportunities you have given the dog in your life. If you make an honest assessment, you can pretty accurately diagnose what motivates her reaction to other dogs. If her social calendar is always empty, she is most likely demonstrating insecurity and fear is at the root of her emotional upset. While it may look like she is launching an overt attack, we have simply not considered or misunderstood the motivation behind the behavior we see. And, we have missed all the ways in which she communicated her thoughts and feelings prior to point where she became overwhelmed by them. If you believe that social insecurity is at the root of the dog’s upset, she will only be made worse by adding pain and fear and by making her confront the object of her reaction. Jerking and shouting are not the best remedy for a dog who is emotionally upset and afraid. Move her away from the triggering stimulus, to a distance where she can maintain her composure. Talk to her calmly and happily. Kneel down beside her and see if she can look at the other dog while sitting. If you are at a distance where she can, she may still feel uncertain, but she won’t be out of control with fear and displays of aggressiveness.

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