A belated Happy New Year to everyone! One of the highlights of my holiday season was walking my dogs with a friend’s puppy. One of my dogs, Super-Dog as we could call him – is very sociable and likes to make friends with everyone and anyone. The other dog, who we will call Scaredy-Dog – is suspicious of all other dogs and it was lovely to see her make friends and find a rare play mate. Walks can be a stressful time for us when we have to pass by unfamiliar dogs. Super-Dog likes to stride ahead and say hello, Scaredy-Dog is normally hiding behind my legs and hoping to make an escape. If I go and get Super-Dog she is torn between staying with me and keeping out of the way. Now Super-Dog is in his senior years his hearing has become quite selective, and it can be a challenge to get him to listen! The end result is often a tangle of legs and leads with me trying to offer apologies all round.
Super-Dog and Scaredy-Dog are two ends of the extreme. Super-Dog has very good social skills. That’s why Scaredy-Dog learnt to accept him so quickly. Unfortunately he hasn’t managed to teach her how to communicate. Scaredy-Dog is a rescue dog who had a hard time during her socialisation period. As such, her understanding of canine body language is poor. She cannot read if another dog is friendly or not and her initial assumption is that any strange dog that approaches wants to hurt her. She tries to tell them to stay away, but her attempts are misguided. She gives an alarm bark as soon as she sees an unfamiliar dog, hoping to ward them off, but all this actually achieves is to draw attention to herself. Dogs that would normally ignore her end up coming over to see what all the fuss is about!
For a long time Scaredy-Dog’s preferred strategy for coping with enthusiastic dogs was to run away when they came too close. However this had variable success. She couldn’t always run far enough, or fast enough…. And sometimes she would find herself lost and alone. As her bond with myself and Super-Dog grew, she was less prepared to risk this, and of-course I would also get scared of losing her, or her running onto a road, and would have to resort to restricting her on a lead. As a result, all too often she would find herself trapped, with another dog approaching and ignoring her frantic attempts to ask them not to. Of-course we tried to persuade her not to be scared, and when other dogs kept their distance she would relax. If she could observe them for a while, and nothing bad happened she may even start to approach them and eventually even play – as with our friend’s puppy. Some dogs always insist on charging up and crowding her, though. To start with this would cause her to freeze, which is a sad state of affairs as it was really her saying that she had no idea what to do to save herself, and was overwhelmed with fear.
It is not so hard to understand why she felt she had to try something else to stop herself being frightened again and again. Like many dogs, she was eventually pushed to try frightening the other dog away by using aggression. It is very unusual for fear-aggression to start as a full blown attack and most dogs will try a growl, snarl or snap as the first deterrent. Remember that Scaredy-Dog, and those like her are terrified of direct contact with the other dog – they are worried about getting hurt. Essentially they are trying to avoid a fight at any cost. This can be counter-intuitive to us, but it makes sense to them! What can be even more confusing is that Scaredy dogs can look not so much scared, as confident. How can this be? Again it is easier to understand when we consider the dog’s point of view. The snarl, growl or snap often gets the desired effect. Either the other dog finally gets the message and gives up, or its owner may well drag it away.
‘Great!’ Scaredy-Dog starts to think. ‘I’ve finally found something that works! Next time I won’t bother with all that woofing or running away, I’ll go straight for the growl!’
So we can see that it is not so much that Scaredy-Dog becomes confident near the other dog, but more that she becomes confident in her use of aggression to control the situation. The underlying emotion is still fear, and the aim is still to keep the other dog away, but it is not unusual to see dogs that are displaying defensive aggression making the first move and even lunging at the other dog. Although we may not always have seen the progression for ourselves, this is almost always the pattern that has built up over time.
How we react to those like Scaredy -Dog is very important. If we punish our dogs we will most likely add to their fear and heighten their response. If we reassure them we may reward the aggression and encourage them to use it further. So what can we do? Helping our scaredy dogs overcome their fears involves giving them lots of controlled, positive interactions with suitable dogs and this is best undertaken with professional help. It is a big undertaking and needs to be generalised to different dogs in different places. My Scaredy-Dog used to walk with a friends collie in a particular park. For a time, she was happy to meet collies, or other dogs in that park, but other breeds in other places were still just as scary! Because we walk in many different places and her exposure to strange dogs is unpredictable I accepted long ago that my best strategy was to manage the situation. I do this by trying to convince her that waiting calmly next to me while the other dog goes quietly past is both a safe and a rewarding choice. Remembering to carry tasty food or a favourite toy is essential! Unfortunately, this is a two way process. It only works when the other dog stays away – there is no point in me asking her to remain calm or offering her a reward when another dog is approaching and she is already scared. Whatever I am doing at this stage will simply become a cue for her to look out for danger. Every time the behaviour I am training fails her, and another dog gets too close for comfort, it breaks her trust in listening to me and further convinces her that aggression was indeed the best strategy.
So I guess this is more than just a discussion as to the whys and wherefores. It is also a plea for myself, Scaredy-Dog and the many others like us! If you see someone struggling with an unruly dog please accept our apology and not think us rude if we ask you to quietly pass by and let us get on as best we can. Thank You!
Written by Miss Gemma Clark BVSc, PG(Dip), MRCVS.
Gemma is a practicing vet who qualified in 2004 and has worked exclusivley with companion animals. She has a post graduate certificate in companion animal behaviour counselling.