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When a growl is a good thing, and "friendly dogs" aren’t welcome!

Have you ever had to shout out “its ok, he’s friendly!” or are you the receiver of this dreaded statement?

I bet you’re wondering why I’m referring to it as a dreaded statement…

What if I was to tell you that as a qualified dog trainer and owner of a reactive dog, that statement sets my teeth on edge, makes my toes curl, and makes me shout back “

Mine isn’t so can you call your dog back… QUICKLY??”

You see I have a male American Bulldog, named Cooper, who weighs close to 7 stone… over half my weight. He doesn’t like to be rushed up on by other dogs as he suffers from anxiety. In the right setting, he can and will meet new dogs, and get on with them fabulously, but god forbid your dog should be rude enough to bolt over to us and ignore his warning signals that he’s uncomfortable.

Cooper isn’t a bad dog, or a naughty dog. Some may label him aggressive, and he definitely can be.

Aggression is the readiness to attack or confront during a social interaction. This can be the result of provocation or frustration, or a reaction to a situation. Reactionary aggression is a natural act when an animal, including humans, feels backed into a corner or a situation that they feel they cannot escape from.

Now let me set the scene…

You feel anxious about crowded places, maybe a supermarket. There’s lots of things going on, people coming from all directions, going away from you, coming towards you, walking past you. Its difficult to tell their emotions or their intentions. One guy stares at you, and wont look away, he looks a bit threatening, but his mate pulls him away so you feel slight relief, but now you’re not sure where he’s gone….

Now a lady comes over to say hello, she’s talking to your friend, and has a child with her who looks really scared and is trying to pull away from you. You’re not really sure why so you try to say hello to be nice. Whoops, wrong move… out of nowhere the child slaps you. Now you’re confused as well as worried about the scary guy.

As you carry on round the supermarket, all of a sudden, this teenager comes running out of nowhere and tries to hug you. “Whoa mate, get out of my space please!” You move around trying to get out of his grip, your mate won’t let go off you, you try to make space between you and this weirdo that just isn’t listening to your shouts of “leave me alone!” but she just wont let you go, now this teenager is all over you, trying to grab you, so you shout louder, still nothing! What do you have to do to get this kid away from you???

You resort to a punch in the nose, your friend who has hold of you shouts at you, maybe slaps you for being so rude! WHAT?? That wasn’t your fault, right? The kid wouldn’t listen! But! The kid was shocked, he ran away, it worked??!!

Now what are you going to do next time?? Will you shout loudly as soon as you see the teenager? Just so that they know not to get close or else??

Do you think he learnt his lesson the first time? Maybe… but you’re not going to let him get close enough to find that out, are you??

Now I want you to ask yourself how you feel after reading this? Pretty anxious? Heart beating a little faster? Imagine the YOU in this story is your dog…

- How do you think they feel every time you step into that “supermarket”?

- Would you hold your "friend" back and shout at them for being rude, or would you support them by making sure that teenager doesn’t get too close? Is your dog the teenager?

- How does that make you feel? Knowing you could potentially be allowing an interaction that could leave your dog too anxious to go out and enjoy life?

- Maybe your dog is the child that feels the need to “slap” every time someone comes close? Even when that someone is trying to be nice or playful?

All dogs have the potential to be aggressive in a situation that warrants such a reaction. Our job as owners and trainers, is to make sure our dogs aren’t ever put in a situation that needs aggression to get them out.

Below is the ladder of aggression. All dogs will climb this ladder if the rung below isn’t listened to… and if you punish a behaviour i.e. slap a dog for growling, they just learn to avoid that punishment (slap) by stopping the behaviour (growl). THEY WILL STILL CLIMB THAT LADDER if they aren’t listened to… you just taught them that growls are bad. They are not, they are good! It’s a warning, make space or I will climb… it is not a sign of dominance, it is natural dog behaviour that says “I’m uncomfortable and I need space” Please listen to it, for your dog’s sake!

Here are my top 5 tips for creating a social dog/puppy that knows when to interact, and when to leave well alone.

1. Keep interactions to a minimum – 3 seconds is all it takes to say hello to an unknown dog. Sometimes they don’t even have to meet at all, just walk on by.

2. Learn how to read your dog – dogs use body language for 90% of their communication, why not learn their language and be in the know? Calming signals are the most important.

3. Dogs don’t need to be friends with everyone – like humans, they just don’t like certain dogs/people/situations, take note and be there for them.

4. Be your dog’s support – if they do end up in a situation they can’t escape, help them to escape, put yourself between them and the offending animal/person, pick them up, distract and retreat.

5. Know your dog’s critical distance – this is the distance to which your dog can or cannot cope… and it changes in certain situations. E.g. Coopers CD is about a 2 metres with on lead dogs, off lead dogs its around 200m any closer and he turns into a screaming banshee and I have to vacate quickly.

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