Growling & barking - important communication
'Not growling' doesn't make him safer.
Feeling safer makes him stop growling.
"I just want him to stop."
He can't just choose to stop being afraid. When your dog growls or barks at someone or something that alarms him, he is asking for help.
Correction is not the answer. Suppression of the outward signs of fear doesn't make a dog calmer or more relaxed. In fact, shutting down this essential communication makes him more dangerous - and he's even more anxious because he can't express how he feels.
Let's evaluate the situation in the photo.
Environmental observation - it is a rural setting, which suggests that this dog may not have experienced rich early socialization. Finding strangers on the property is likely an unusual event. A bit like getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and finding a stranger in your living room. Imagine your heart racing!
The dog is not confident or comfortable.
Observable body language: Low head, crouched posture, body weight gathered for quick escape. His movement is edgy and quick to startle. The angle of the dog's focus suggests that the dog is more concerned about the smaller human than the larger one.
Low growl, nervous bark, or silent, cautious approach:
"You don't belong here" - "You make me nervous" - "I don't feel safe"
Conflicted approach. It appears the dog is moving in a path that will take him behind the man, rather than risk getting closer to the worrisome boy.
What's going right in this example?
The people appear confident and comfortable.
If they are concerned, they aren't showing it. They are turned sideways to the dog, remaining calm and speaking in friendly tones, reducing stress.
The parent has the boy's hand and is in control of his movement. He is positioned slightly between the dog and the boy. He can easily step in to body block if needed and could pick up the child to shield him if the dog escalated. He is relaxed but watchful. He has a plan, but he isn't panicking or becoming defensive. Movements are relaxed and easy, his face is soft and he is smiling. He is casual, passive and non-threatening. He isn't confronting the dog in attempt to make it go away, or moving toward the dog in an attempt to make friends. This dog needs time, space and an escape route. He needs his owner to show him, by example, that he has nothing to fear. "These are our friends."
Body Language Basics
When confronted by an agitated dog
Speak in gentle, friendly, confident tones
Keep the dog in your field of vision, but keep your eyes soft and look from the corner of your eye, blink and glance away
Casual body posture, relaxed, not stiff
Yawn, sigh, lick your lips, study your watch
Look off into the distance
Face the dog
Stare, hold your breath, stiffen
Move toward or lean over the dog
Threaten or tell the dog what to do
Try to make friends or reach to pet the dog
Stomp or kick at the dog
Neutralize his concern. Show him you are not a threat.
Best case scenario: Everyone remains calm and predictable. The dog has the time and space to acclimate to the new visitors. Social pressure is minimal - he is addressed casually, if at all, and is mostly ignored. The dog is free to approach and retreat at his own pace and allowed to find out, in his own time, that these are nice folks and nothing to be concerned about. No one tries to "make friends" or lure the dog closer with treats. If treats are used at all, they are tossed to the side, away from the visitors so the dog must explore the ground to collect them. (Sniffing is a calming activity to help the dog relax. The food is a diversion, not a means to bait the dog closer.)
[See: Treat & Retreat]
Bad scenario: The dog is restrained and forced to allow petting. This would be much the same as being made to hold a spider or snake if you were terrified of them. In this case, the dog may have no choice but to endure the situation. He doesn't learn to like it. He'll likely show more avoidance next time, AND he loses trust in his owner.
Worse case scenario: The dog is scolded or physically corrected for barking. This will increase the dog's anxiety about this situation and any that appear similar in the future. 'Visitors are dangerous and make my owner angry and unpredictable.' Punishment will likely cause new avoidance or increased aggressive responses to future visitors.
Even worse case scenario: The boy is unsupervised and free to run around. The strangers direct their attention toward the dog in an attempt to be "friendly" and push him over the edge. He reacts aggressively to defend himself and learns that aggression works. He now has discovered the power in being scary. This is a bell that cannot be un-rung and a reaction that is very difficult to eliminate from the fearful dog's repertoire once it works to alleviate the predicament he is in.
The most important question - can the boy trust his father to keep him safe? Can the dog trust his owner to keep him safe? If the answer to both questions is "yes" - both the dog and the boy will have learned lessons that will help build trust and confidence in similar situations in the future.
“Trust – takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair. If its lost it’s not easily found and if it is found its never the same again” – Author unknown
This handout may be reprinted in its entirety for distribution free of charge and with full credit given:
© CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF" Training for Dogs & Their People -
ditr_training @ hotmail.com -