Kathy Santo trains dogs for home and competition at her obedience school in New Jersey. She's the author of "Kathy Santo's Dog Sens"e and a regular guest on The Martha Stewart Show.
Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, March-April, 2008.
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Turning into an aisle at my local pet supermarket, I came across two customers engrossed in conversation while their dogs-on leashessniffed each other. Other people were walking past and smiling, seeing a friendly interlude. But I was rooted to the spot: I see dogfights.
As soon as the facial expression of one of the dogs changed for the worse, I rushed toward them, saying, "Ah-ahl" (Meaning, "Don't do it!") Just as the larger of the two dogs was lunging at the other, teeth bared and hackles up, I managed to grab his leash and prevent an altercation. Both owners were staring at me in disbelief, "It's OK," I said, "I'm a dog trainer."
The owner of the still-growling, lunging dog said to me, "It's fine, he was just playing." She patted his head and cooed, "It's OK, baby, you're a good boy." Translation: "I love that you lunge and growl at other dogs. Keep up the good work!"
The other owner had problems too, as his dog was pinned against the back of his legs, quaking in fear, His response was to push his dog toward the other one, admonishing, "Hey, you big sissy! He was just playing!" Translation to Big Sissy: "I have no idea that other dog was telling you to stay away or be killed."
As kindly as I could, I translated what each dog was saying and encouraged the owners to find a qualified trainer or behaviorist to help them. In the meantime, they should watch their dogs to prevent something like that from happening again.
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YOU CAN SEE DOGFIGHTS, TOO
You can and you must learn to see dogfights because doing so can mean the difference between a romp at the dog park or a day in the veterinary ER. First, you have to be able to decode the body language of an aggressive dog. Here are a few signals dogs use to say, "Back off!" (Note that the dog's state of mind is reflected by the sum of all the parts of the dog's body, not just one feature.)
- Eyes: A strong, hard, intense stare.
- Ears: Either laid back flat or standing straight up.
- Mouth: Showing teeth is a major aggressive/ threat signal. Some dogs do "smile" when excited, but their happy body language won't be confused with aggression. Look for the shape of the lips, too. If the lips, when seen from the side, make a C shape, the dog is most likely extremely agitated, and is feeling both aggressive and assertive-a stale that could very well progress into a bite if not handled correctly.
- Nose: Slightly tinned tip, usually because of the lifting of the lips.
- Head/Neck: In a typical guarding posture, the dog's neck is a hit lower than shoulder level and his head is lowered and stretched forward. The piloerector reflex (PR) causes the hair to stand up, starting in the neck area. PR can indicate a startled, uncomfortable, defensive, or aggressive reaction.
- Body: Watch for squared-off, tense, and very quiet body language. PR can cause the hair to stand on the entire body.
- Tail: Maybe stiff and straight, or high over the dog's back. Short, staccato wags, or wagging at just the tip, can be a threat gesture. A bottle-brush-like tail indicates an extreme PR response.
The instant you conclude that a dog is giving a Buck off! signal, you must heed that warning. And you may have to help your dog heed it, if his social skills aren't the best (meaning he can't read the message the other dog is giving him). Remove your dog immediately-and calmly-from the situation. If you panic, string your dog up on his leash, and rush him away, you can do more harm than good.
Become fluent in the signals of canine body language, and soon you'll see-and prevent-dogfights, too