Four instances in the span of a few weeks is just too much for me not to address this topic. But before I begin, let me note a few things.
First, the following is not to say that I don’t think that dogs are wonderful observers of human behavior. I think they are, better observers than us in fact. They smell better and hear better than we can even dream. I am absolutely confident that dogs can smell if not sense emotional states of human beings. I also happen to believe that an astute dog can smell/sense these changes and be affected by them, particularly in humans that are familiar. I know that I’m not alone in that belief, which is where this post is coming from.
Here’s the most recent example of where the above-mentioned belief can become dangerous, however.
Yesterday, when I got home from work, I brought Shelby outside to play and train some. Really, I was trying to get some cute pictures of her, because I haven’t had many of her to post recently. I checked the yard to make sure it was dog and kid free before I let her out off leash, as I usually do. I draped her leash around my neck, stuffed my pockets full of treats, grabbed a clicker and my camera and headed out the door. Shelby was waiting on the porch for me to follow, as she always does. We were not five steps off the porch and into the backyard when I saw one of the neighbor’s friends start to walk down the edge of the yard. I recognized the look on her face immediately. She had a big smile for me, but her eyes kept straying to Shelby. Her head was slightly cocked ,and her movements were stiff and uncertain, but she was propelled forward by some kind of strange magic that fluffy creatures have on humans. I immediately leashed Shelby and held out a few treats to her when she alerted to the woman. Humans equal treats I was telling her, but in my head, I was gritting my teeth.
Can’t I just let my dog play in her own yard without half the damn neighborhood wanting to come see her?
Before the woman could step onto our property I called over to her, “I’m sorry, but she’s not good with strangers!”
The woman stopped, but only for a moment, then started walking forward again, “What?”
She wasn’t that far. I knew she heard me. I rephrased, “She’s not friendly.”
Still, she moved forward, “Well, I don’t believe that, everyone raves about how well trained she is!”
I sighed and continued to empty treats onto the ground for Shelby, who had laid down at my cue. Her brows were sufficiently furrowed at this point, what with the stranger beginning to enter her flight zone, but she was putting on a good show of cooperating. Her ears were pinned, her commissure tight and but for her eating, her mouth remained closed and her jaw muscles tense.
“Yes, thank you! She is well trained, but she’s still mean.”
There. I hate to put it that way, but sometimes it’s the only way to get my point across. Shelby isn’t really “mean”; she’s fearful, but the woman was not backing down, and I needed to do the responsible thing and protect my dog’s fragile emotional state.
That stopped her, “Oh. Does she bite?”
“Well, no, she’s never bitten anyone, but she barks and lunges, and it’s pretty scary.”
Again, movement. I tried very hard to keep smiling and keep my composure but inside I was I screaming, “What the hell?”
After a few more protestations, she did stop, completely. I explained to her that yes, Shelby had never bitten, but I didn’t want her to be the first time. She laughed and nodded while I added, “I don’t want anyone to be the first time.”
Point taken, no feelings hurt, she backed up, and I let Shelby off leash to go chase the chickens. Each time she got close to grabbing one I cued, “Leave it” and called “Shelby!” and she recalled. I looked behind my shoulder and noticed the woman standing at a safe distance and watching our training session. She was nodding her head and had a small smile on her face that conveyed admiration. That was acceptable. Eventually, she tired and walked away. I let out a little sigh.
If this had been the only time this happened I would have just shrugged it off. But it wasn’t. Not even close.
A week or so ago I had Panzer outside for his morning play ball session. We were in the midst of throwing the ball when my neighbor began to walk toward us. My neighbor knows that Panzer is reactive and sometimes rather unpredictable, even to me, with a decently trained eye. He’s good with people, but he needs a long introduction and he doesn’t particularly like strangers or near-strangers entering his space. He does much better when he enters the space of others. I recalled Panzer and put on his leash. My neighbor told me not to worry about it, “Seriously, don’t worry about it. I just won’t show fear.”
I stood in between Panzer and my neighbor and backed us up a bit. My neighbor sighed and said, “Seriously Aimee, don’t worry about it. I’m not afraid of him.” She sounded like she was angry at me. She sighed in an exasperated way as if to say, “God, don’t you know any better?”
I’ve heard this before. Two weeks ago, an old school compulsion trainer that Carolyn was trying to enlighten had the privilege of being reacted at by Shelby. He refused to avert his eyes despite the fact that both Carolyn and I pleaded with him to do so. Instead, he squared his shoulders, put his hands on his hips and stared my fearful puppy down while she lunged and jumped and growled and barked and piloerected like crazy, great big wide hackles across her shoulders. Her tail flew frenzied circles while the man menacingly told her, “If you don’t shut that up I’ll kick you in the teeth. I’m not afraid of you, dog.” Carolyn immediately told me to remove Shelby from the situation and began to school the man while I seethed. Kick my puppy indeed!
I’ve been bitten by a dog exactly once in my life. My childhood German shepherd, Bear, bit me on my right thigh, and I still wear the scar to this day. I was not afraid of Bear. He slept in my bed (and continued to do so after the incident). I loved him like any child loves her dog. He still bit me though. I was eight, and I don’t know why he bit me, but he did, and it had nothing to do with my fear (maybe his though, who knows). Likewise, I have been around reactive dogs that scared the living shit out of me, to be blunt, who I have not been bitten by, because I’ve learned how to properly read dog body language, and I have learned mechanisms to keep me from being bitten.
Not being afraid of a reactive dog will not protect you from being bitten.
Read that again if you need to. I like to think that Shelby and Panzer would not bite, but I’m not naive. They certainly could, any dog could really, but my dogs are reactive and if backed into a corner, there’s a good chance that they would bite. If Panzer and Shelby were to bite someone, their fear would be the motivating factor, not the human’s.
First of all, as I’ve said before, dogs have a wonderful sense of smell. There are dogs that can sniff out cancer in human beings. Dogs can smell particular hormones we let out, and they may be wise enough to interpret what they mean (for more information on this, consider Dr. Alexandra Horowitz’ book Inside of a Dog). Second, it is very difficult to control your own emotions, especially when faced with a snarling, lunging dog, especially a 70 pound German shepherd that looks more like a wolf than a dog when she’s really reacting. So to say that you can mask your fear from a dog is failing to give credit where credit is due. If you’re afraid, it’s likely that the dog knows.
And if you’re not afraid, that is most likely not going to change anything anyway. Reaction like the type that Panzer and Shelby maintain has absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with the dog. The dog is afraid. When a person approaches Shelby or Panzer and makes them uncomfortable, they immediately start throwing off stress signals, they stiffen, brows furrow, they lick their lips and avert their heads, pin their ears, sometimes even tuck their tails. When the person keeps coming, they begin to bark, “Didn’t you see me, I’m scared! Go away!” They piloerect (their hackles go up) which is involuntary for the record, it’s like goosebumps. If the person were to keep coming forward, they would almost surely bite. In the dog’s view, they’ve done everything they could to end this amicably, fight or flight has been triggered and backed into a corner, they are ready to fight, they are that afraid of you.
It’s not personal. It has nothing to do with you. It is something that needs to be retrained in their brain. We’re working on that. They’ve gotten much better, but they both still have a long way to go. It would be much easier if people didn’t feel like they had some kind of instant solution to this problem. Trust me, if there were, I would have used it by now. There isn’t. And approaching my dog despite my protests is not only dangerous, it’s just plain stupid.
I’ve worked really hard to get my dogs to the point where they are now, but well trained does not equal non-reactive. So please, when I ask you to stay away, stay away, I’m trying to be a responsible dog owner by keeping you safe. And don’t believe that by showing no fear my dogs are going to be lolling in your laps with their tongues hanging out, because that’s simply not the case. Don’t be some poor dog’s first bite victim simply because you failed to listen.