LIKE us humans, dogs are complicated creatures. Anyone who has lived with a dog for any length of time knows that they have their own preferences, character traits, interests and triggers.
So, when we look into dog aggression we find, like in the human world, it’s very complicated and not easily broken down into bite-sized pieces.
There are 16 types of aggression listed under the heading of “dog aggression” and these are broad-spectrum statements that don’t even begin to take into account the individual triggers that might be at work in any one dog. Dogs are individuals and that’s why we love them. But it also means that what may send one dog into a frenzy won’t even be noticed by another dog.
And it’s possible to have an introvert dog says Dr Michael Archinal, Canberra veterinarian and author of “Animal Wisdom”.
“I ask people if their anxious dog is actually enjoying the walks they are taken on and I often get a blank look. But actually some dogs just don’t enjoy their interactions with other dogs.”
He suggests taking nervous dogs to areas where they can access enriching experiences without the stress of other dog interactions.
Dogs will generally engage in what author of Janis Bradley (“Dogs Bite but Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous”) calls “species normal ritualised aggression”. I remember watching my family’s great dane labrador cross stalking around other male dogs, growling with his hackles up. Mind you, in no way should you be keeping an entire male, except for breeding purposes. The neutering of domestic dogs is one of the key ways we avoid many of the larger-dog behaviour problems.
However, a well-socialised dog should understand how to behave around other dogs. Puppies have a short period of time called the “critical socialisation window” between three and 17 weeks old when what they are exposed to becomes normalised – that’s why puppy classes are so crucial to bringing up a well-rounded dog.
So, when a dog bowls up to you in the off-the-leash dog park chances are it will listen to the signals given to it by you and your dogs.
“Dogs will signal to one another from hundreds of metres away,” says Dr Archinal.
Dogs’ signalling is a field that is currently being studied extensively. In her excellent book “Inside of a Dog – What Dogs See, Smell, and Know”, Alexandra Horowitz talks about how quickly dogs signal (to the point where the researchers used slow-motion cameras to capture the individual movements). They communicate in ways our human eyes don’t take in.
So, what should you do if you and your small dogs are baled up at the off-the-leash area?
Firstly, think carefully about whether you and your dogs enjoy the experience an off-the-leash area can offer enough to make it worth going. Dr Archinal suggests only taking small dogs to the off-the-leash zones specifically catering for their size and safety.
Try common commands on the dog that is bothering you. “Down!”, “Sit!” and “Drop!” might be all worth a go, as well as shouting “No!” or “Go away!”
Shouting and making a fuss are certainly ways of attracting attention if there is an owner or someone to help you on the horizon, otherwise you may be making yourself more exciting to the approaching dog and, perhaps, making your own dogs anxious.
If there’s no-one about to help, try to stay calm and remain as uninteresting as possible. Keep your dog/s as quiet as possible and move away from the problem dog slowly and calmly.
Lucy Alexander is a Canberra dog owner, enthusiast and writer who is working on publishing a book about dog behaviour.
Lucy’s earlier article is at https://citynews.com.au/2017/opinion-aggressive-dogs/