Personal space is an important element in human society. There are unwritten rules – not speaking to someone inches from their face, not jumping into someone’s car without asking first because you need a ride, or even entering a person’s home you don’t know to use their bathroom. A common-sense respect for personal space boundaries makes people feel more comfortable.
It is the same in the dog – dog world. Each dog and owner on a walk has their own personal space boundaries. When most people are walking their dog, it should be to walk their dog, not to visit every other dog in the neighborhood.
Now think of personal space as your dog may – you are walking on the trail, minding your business, and another person comes running up to you and starts jumping on you and grabbing at you. You go to leave and the other person chases after you. You would most likely yell and push that person away. When you have a dog that is in need of personal space, your dog will bark and growl and may even lunge to get the other dog away. It does not mean your dog is aggressive, but he is reacting to the other dog.
There is a difference between a reactive dog and an aggressive dog. Many people look at dogs that lunge, jump, growl, and bark as aggressive dogs. Although, these can be characteristics of an aggressive dog; they are not automatic labels for aggressive or dangerous dogs. If you think about it, the physical actions mentioned are really based on heightened adrenaline. We need to identify the underlying sentiment within the dog and to make the appropriate decision based on that.
First, look at the general signs of a jumping, lunging, barking, growling dog that is reactive and not dangerous. Many dogs are just naturally playful. If you have them on a leash and they lunge or bark at other dogs, but their body language is not rigid, they are probably just excited. If you can quickly give them a tug on the leash and get them to continue their walk, you should be fine. If they don’t “lose it” when they see every dog in the neighborhood, they are probably just over- excited over for certain dogs and should overall be fine.
Dogs can be dominant and still be perfectly safe and socialized. Jumping on visitors is often a simple sign of dominance, over-excitedness and a demand for attention. Although an unwanted behavior, it is not necessarily a sign of danger. A few training techniques to educate the dog to have the correct behaviors can quickly resolve this annoying and sometimes frightening habit.
Some dogs are naturally more territorial than others. When a dog gives a slight growl when you approach, it is not necessarily a sign that the dog is about to attack you. However, it is more likely the dog’s way of respectfully telling you that you have come far enough. If you continue to approach after this communication, he may lunge and nip. In his world, he already gave you a non-threatening warning, which you did not respect. The best action you can take in this instance is to listen to the dog and stand your ground. You can be perfectly safe by just staying “out of his space”.
So, what are the signs to determine if an adrenalized dog could be aggressive or dangerous? There are some obvious signs that most people already know. If the dog is growling and showing his teeth is the most obvious. If the dog’s tail is between his legs and/or his fur on his back is up, you are probably entering a dangerous situation with a fearful dog. If the dog is slowly pacing back and forth and giving you glancing stares showing the whites of his eyes, this is not a good situation. If the dog has backed into a corner, this is not a good indication.
If your dog runs out the front door the moment you open it and exerts 100% of his energy towards other dogs or people, that focus and adrenaline is normally more than happy. If he is constantly pulling, on the search for animals and people, that could be a problem. If he jumps on your guests in a way that means to knock them down while growling, that could be an aggressive dog. If he goes after everyone the moment he sees them, that is a problem. If he routinely runs completely across the room or the yard to jump on someone that is not encouraging him or focused on him, that is a warning sign. If the dog comes up to people and starts to growl immediately, that is another warning sign.
Whenever a dog becomes over adrenalized, the best action is to be still, calm, and tall. This is sending a non-threatening message to the dog. It is telling him “I mean you no harm and I will simply continue on my way”. This body language is a natural de-escalation in the dog’s eyes.
There is a very large difference in how you deal with aggressive dogs and excited dogs. It is always best to err on the side of caution if you have any question as to the dog’s disposition. If your dog is showing signs either in a reactive way or aggressive manners, you should consider working with a certified canine behavioral therapist that knows how to work with these specific behaviors.
Jeri Wagner is a canine behavioral therapist and master trainer. Jeri uses a natural training system leveraging the same communication methods – body language and voice control – that dogs follow as part of their instinctive pack mentality. Training takes place in the home where the problems generally occur. Jeri trains in western Montgomery County, northern Chester County and eastern Berks County. For more information, call 1-877-500 BARK (2275) or visit www.barkbusters.com.
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