When dog owners contact me because their dog has barked, growled, snapped or lunged at them, strangers or another dog, they often follow with sentiments along the lines of “He has always been fine, this came out of the blue.” “Why is he ok with some people, but not others?” “But we are not going to hurt him, why doesn’t he understand?” “It doesn’t make sense that he is afraid! If he is afraid, why isn’t he running away instead of barking and lunging?” And the list could go on.
Aggression from dogs triggers our own fear reaction. This fear turns to frustration and confusion. Of course it does! They have big pointy teeth that could hurt us or others. They live with us in our homes and we love them as part of our family. When they feel the need to growl, snap or lunge, we want immediate unequivocal answers and we want the scary behavior to stop happening, now!
Let’s first look at fear and aggression to help us understand what is going on with our dogs. Both fear and aggression function to protect an animal or its resources by increasing distance. Fight or flight. It all comes down to this: someone has to leave. All animals’ behavior, including ours, occurs as a function to help us to make a living in the world. Without behavior, we would be either be dead due to starvation, injury, disease or from another’s actions and if we are dead we most certainly cannot pass on our genes for the next batch of mini-me’s. Fear and aggression are our biggest allies in survival of what the world throws at us daily.
What we choose to do in a particular situation is heavily based on what has worked or not worked for us in the past. Was that a safe situation or was a close call that left us scared and unsure? What did we do to get ourselves out of the close call and what will we do in the future to avoid that same sticky situation? By answering these questions we get a window into why our dogs growl and snap.
When our dog asks us or another dog to back off, it is because he perceives an object, person, dog, or action as a threat to their safety. “Perceives” is the key word here. You may not see it as a threat, but your dog does and that is the only thing that matters. I find spiders freaking scary! On the other hand, I love climbing on wobbling rocks to heights that others would find unsafe and not worth the possible risk. Perhaps I could learn to like spiders or you could learn to enjoy heights, but it most certainly is not going to happen overnight. It is the same for our dogs. Plus, our dogs have different mental tools for dealing with life than we do. They can’t talk themselves out of being afraid of something because we tell them it is silly and safe. That cognitive capacity does not exist for our companions.
Dogs take in the world and learn differently than we do. Frankly, I wish my own life was digested by means of their mental processes versus mine that keeps me up at night. No bills to fret about, no keeping up with the Joneses, no expectations of others to meet, no grand life goals to work towards. For dogs, stuff is either safe or scary and something either works or doesn’t work for them.
Here is an example of a dog that is scared of a stranger petting him. The stranger approaches the adorable dog we will call Edwin. Edwin tries to move away to avoid being touched, but that darned leash is thwarting his escape. He averts his eyes, hides behind his mom and makes himself as small as possible, but the person keeps coming towards him. Edwin realizes his “Please, no thank you” is not working. He can’t get away, so now he tries telling the person he clearly sees them and really doesn’t want to say hello by turning his body towards them, stiffening his posture and focusing in on their every movement. But “Hey, ummm, NO thank you” still has no effect. Edwin’s lips are now curling and his teeth are visible while he lets out a low growl. The person continues and bends over to reach in while saying “Hi buddy, it’s ok.” Edwin says “NO! It is not ok, back off now!” The person jumps backwards and finally gives him the space he was asking for all along.
What did Edwin learn from this experience? He learned that asking nicely in his language didn’t work. What did work was getting vocal and moving in on the stranger’s space while shouting “You go away now!” What is he going to do next time a person approaches him for pets? He may just growl and lunge right away, simply because it worked to keep him safe.
If his mom was to jerk on his leash and tell him how bad he was, this may temporarily stop him from growling and lunging in the future. What it most certainly would not do is change how he felt about that stranger approaching him or future strangers for the matter. In fact, it may make them scarier and even teach him that shouting back off does not work, so now he should just bite because that is all he has left.
I can hear your gears turning. “But, why does my dog do this to new people he meets, but not me? Why is he ok with some people, but not others?” Well, let’s go back to my example of me not being so keen on spiders. If say my buddy Jim was to stop over at my house and bring along his spider Jake traveling in his posh terrarium—that I could handle. As long as the lid was on tight.
If, on the other hand, Jim decided that Jake and I needed to be friends on a touchy-feely level and he had Jake in his palm then began to approach me saying “He’s harmless, really,” game over! It is the same for your dog. If your dog sees a person from a comfortable distance, busy chatting with their friend and not looking at him, then they are most likely in the safe category. But if they are making eye contact and saying “Oh what a cute doggie” and starting to move towards him with those googly “I need to pet the dog” eyes, your dog’s “Stranger! Danger!!” sirens start going off.
And just like Edwin, your dog will start to see the little chain of events that led up to the stranger attempting to pet him. Dogs are ridiculously good at connecting those into little flow charts. This happens, then this happens, then that happens. If the little dots connect enough times or if the event the dots led to was significantly scary, he will learn that pattern and be prepared for it to occur again.
And guess what? We, humans, are creatures of habit. They will start to react sooner to prevent that end event from happening—just like if every time my friend came to visit with his spidey friend in the terrarium, he immediately let it out to say hi. The second I saw him walk in the door, I would have the options to flee or fight at my disposal and whichever one worked for me in the past is the one I would be more likely to repeat in the future. It is me or the spider. Someone has to leave.