When Fear of Aggressive Dogs Makes Dogs Aggressive, We Have Our Lizard Brains to Thank

Once We Were Prey and We Adopted a Predator

When we are faced with sharp pointy teeth, like in the picture above, it triggers a primal emotion inside us. Sometimes the feeling can be so fleeting that we don’t even notice it—maybe because our experience or knowledge quickly overrides our initial emotions—but we all have it in us: the fear of predators. The reason is, of course, that we were once prey. Back in the days, before we had the power of stone, fire and steel, fear of predators kept us alive because we avoided them. It’s our evolutionary legacy that, despite having unleashed fire and fury on every creature we fear ever since, we cannot shake this quintessential element of basic survival instinct. And this fear has been exploited, and sometimes fuelled, by authors and script writers, from fairy tales to horror movies to news reporting.

It is entirely reasonable then that we fear our dogs. Even the tiniest handbag dweller can render your hand a useless limb with their little canines. And technically, although only a B-grade horror flick could have an entirely improbable story line where a Chihuahua severs a person’s carotid artery, death by toy dog is a possibility.

Size Matters, Says Our Lizard Brain

The reality is, the little monsters tend to get off scot-free, no matter how much they snarl, snap or even bite. We may even laugh when tiny Cesar bares his teeth at a 50-kilo Bullmastiff. “Little dog syndrome”, we casually say in their defence, while we drag the noisy ball of aggression away. Turn the tables and there isn’t much defensive rhetoric you can come up with. Some people quiver, if your square-headed companion simply sets eyes on their dog. Little do they know that Bullmastiffs—like the boy in the photo—are often the sweetest dogs. The adverse reaction to these dogs is completely understandable, though. Large, powerful dogs resemble our ancient predators so perfectly well whereas little cute fluffballs can hide their deadly teeth behind their button noses and doe eyes. But those miniature fangs are there, waiting for that ankle or finger or carotid artery. This is not to say that small dogs are more likely to be aggressive than big dogs, but because managing a small aggressive dog is considerably easier than wrestling a heavy-weight who’s blown a fuse, small dogs have better survival chances. We keep them alive and we keep them at home or on leash.

Their bigger conspecifics are rarely that lucky, with certain breeds copping it especially hard depending on the current fashion. One day it’s Rottweilers, next it’s Dobermans, then it’s Pit Bulls (more precisely: the American Pit Bull Terrier or any dog that looks vaguely similar) with their mythical “lock-jaws”. Those dogs lose their lives because of an image problem, no matter if they committed any offence or if their offence was ridiculously trivial. There is no rationality behind it other than our ancient deep-seated involuntary fear of predators. But, we modern day humans make plenty of lizard brain decisions, so it’s not really that surprising.

How Our Fears Can Kill Dogs

When dogs interact in play, they show us plenty of predator-style behaviours such as chasing, pouncing, showing of teeth, making contact with teeth and growling. And what do we do, more often than not? We intervene. We pull the dogs apart or restrain them and try to teach them with lots of “no” and “ah-ah” that aggression is bad. We want our dogs to play nice. We want calm and gentle dogs. We don’t tolerate anything that we deem aggressive behaviour. This is our lizard brain talking.

The reason this is so devastating is not only that many dogs lose their lives for no other reason than our fears, but that we often make things worse for them, much worse, with our fears. If we deny dogs to behave in a species-typical manner—and that includes aggressive or aggressive-looking behaviour—we may in fact create aggression problems that weren’t even there in the first place.

If puppies are not allowed to learn how to communicate with their conspecifics, future encounters with other dogs can be challenging, and even dangerous, because of misunderstandings, wrong or missing signals and defensive behaviour. We may raise our puppies to be illiterate in their own language, and all because we thought we could, or should, teach them to communicate nicely and in a way that didn’t worry us.

Just as dogs need to be able to talk to each other in their own language—teeth, barks, growls, tumbling, humping and all— they need the liberty to tell us when they feel threatened or uncomfortable. Punishing growling, snarling, snapping or any other form of antagonistic communication, be it directed at humans or other dogs, can create “silent killers”. How often a dog can tolerate being pushed to their limits of how much fear, anxiety and distress they can endure, only the dog knows. We’ll know once that dog bites.

Train Your Brain and Help Safe Dogs

Unless we accept that our dogs are a predatory species, for whom aggressive displays are a normal form of communication, and train ourselves to understand their language, we will always be slave to our lizard brains and make lizard brain decisions.

We can learn how to control our deep-seated fear of sharp teeth by watching lots of dog-dog play. I had an uncle who was one of those people who picked up a foreign language simply by immersing himself in that language. Mind you, his grammar and writing was shocking, but his communication skills were excellent. When it comes to dog language, we are still trying to figure a lot of things out. At least we have started to realise that we got quite a few things wrong in the past, mostly because we couldn’t resist interpreting their language using our own cultural and grammatical rules.

So, get yourself to a dog park during peak hour and watch. Depending on the attendees, you may see a large range of typical dog conversations. We have made things a little challenging for our dogs by creating such great diversity within the species, so you might come across the occasional problem due to dialect. But most importantly, look for those exposed teeth and snarly faces. Watch the fake fights. How are the dogs moving? Are they jumping around like excited kids? Are they taking turns? Does the one you thought was attacking the other suddenly fling herself on the ground, paws paddling in the air?

Watching dog play, and even the occasional altercation, provides an invaluable opportunity to learn canine language, but only if we free our minds from preconceived ideas. Let the dogs be our teachers. After all, they are the native speakers. If we can see dog behaviour for what it really is and learn to control our fears where they are unwarranted, we can safe lives. The more of us realise that most dogs are neither trying to kill each other nor us, the better we can make rational and compassionate decisions, as befits our species.

Is Your Dog a Hippie Dog?

What’s a hippie dog? That was the first question that popped into my head when a friend once asked me why hippie dogs were always so well behaved. The dogs she had in mind were the type that you would see off leash in public areas, typically hanging out with people who were, well, also just hanging out. I went through a hippie phase as a teenager and I remember it was all about being “anti-establishment”, whatever that meant. I think, what I mostly loved about it was the sense of freedom, the sense (or rather illusion) of not being bound by any societal rules. You could say, a hippie dog—not giving a care about leash laws and not forced to follow anyone—is a dog free to choose. So, why do they choose to hang with their people?

Hippie Dogs Are Happy to Stick Around

A common concern I hear from clients is that they worry their dog may run off, if let off the leash, and my first response (although I don’t always say it out loud) is usually “why would they?”. What are the reasons a dog would not stay with the people they consider their family? A dog who has just been adopted from a shelter and not settled into their new home yet is a good candidate for running off into the blue yonder, maybe never to return. So are, one would assume, dogs who are unhappy in their homes, because something causes them serious ongoing or repeated stress. But otherwise, running off is generally a temporary thing, for example to meet other dogs, say hello to people, chase after someone else’s tennis ball or bother the local wildlife. The dog, once satisfied with their adventure, typically returns to their humans. But, just in case you aren’t eager to wait that long or your Kelpie keeps herding the children playing soccer or your friendly Lab disrupts the Tai Chi class or your 50 kilo Bullmastiff makes a beeline for the young family having lunch on a picnic rug, read here how you can get your dog to come back.

The attachment a dog feels to their people plays a factor in staying within range, no doubt. However, I have seen dogs behave in a way that people call loyal despite not having a good relationship with their humans or not having a happy home. I assume this sort of loyalty is a behaviour favoured by evolution: to stick with what one knows, because there’s usually less danger involved. In particular dogs who are anxious and lack confidence are prone to fear what they don’t know and less likely to explore and venture far. On the other hand, any sudden scare can send them dashing off across the road. The behaviour of hippie dogs though is not fearful at all. Quite the opposite, these dogs are as chilled as a cucumber and nothing seems to faze them. My guess is, they follow their people around because they want to, not because they are afraid not to. A positive relationship, built on trust and reinforcement of desirable behaviours, instead of force and coercion, is certainly a good idea, if you want your dog to stick around of their own free will.

Hippie Dogs Have Seen It All

But there’s more, of course. Hippie dogs don’t seem to get excited about much at all (and don’t say it’s probably the drugs!). You don’t see them run across the road, if they spot another dog on the other side, they don’t chase after the cat on the fence, they don’t jump up at people and they don’t bark at the garbage truck. The crucial component which makes a hippie dog is, I suspect, their stellar socialisation. Genetic makeup matters too of course, but if we are lucky and our dog has happy little genes, then the environment the dog grows up in is the biggest thing we have to focus on. Hippie dogs seem to have seen it all. They are not afraid of new people or novel things, because apparently their early environment was so rich with everything our crazy human world has to offer that they feel comfortable wherever they go. The rarer something is the more attention the dog will pay to it, so a dog with an impoverished socialisation is more likely to get overexcited or anxious when they see other dogs and people than a hippie dog for whom other dogs and people are nothing special.

Make Your Own Hippie Dog: Socialise, Handle with Care, Train with Kindness

So, would you like to have a hippie dog? I have to be honest: I highly suspect that the hippie dog is a mythical creature. Or maybe they are extinct. Nevertheless, there’s nothing stopping you from trying. You and your dog may end up a lot happier.

By the way, the hippie dog has an evil twin. Well, to be fair, they aren’t actually evil. Most of them are just scared most of the time. Guard dogs are on high alert, if anything in their environment raises their suspicion—which is almost everything. They were either trained or bred to fear what they don’t know, or both. In Australian states trained guard dogs are automatically classified as dangerous dogs. Any dog who ferociously barks at or goes after strangers—no matter if trained, born or raised that way—is potentially useful as a guard dog but makes a lousy family pet. They also tend to have a pretty lousy life (imagine going through life constantly looking over your shoulder in expectation of danger). Guard dogs and other stranger danger dogs don’t relax around people they don’t know, they have a limited environment where they feel comfortable and they have a very narrow, or non-existent, social circle. They are the exact opposite of the hippie dog.

The bottom line is, if you want a companion dog you can take everywhere and be social with, do not put the fear in your dog. If you already have a fearful dog, do everything you can to help them fear less. If you want protection, get an alarm system. Let’s populate the world with hippie dogs. Ok, we don’t have to call them that.

Dog-dog play is (almost) all we need

If I could patent dog-dog play and sell it as a tonic for anything from depression to foot warts, I think my future might be secure. At least my product wouldn’t harm anyone and have a real chance of making people forget about their worries and ailments, if only for a while. Especially, if we’re talking puppy play!

Being a professional dog trainer, I could, of course, also prescribe play as a one-stop solution to the entire range of behaviour problems that are common in our pooches. Just allow your dog to play and – problem solved! And you know what? In quite a lot of cases this may in fact be enough to give stressed out dog owners and even more stressed out dogs a breakthrough in their stress laden relationships.

Using physical exercise as a solution to emotionally based problems is nothing new and it works for humans just as well as for other animals. Sure, it’s certainly not always the entire solution, rarely actually, but it can be a large component in a ‘make-me-feel-better program’, a safety net, and even an emergency get-away-from-that-cliff-edge activity.

Dog-dog play is not only about physical exertion though. No doubt, play can be extremely tiring, but there is also the social component and the mental and emotional challenges that come with it. For most dogs, play is a good thing. It’s good for their brain, it’s good for their health and it’s good for their general behaviour. Some dogs just love to play with other dogs, even past their puppy years, while others are a bit more ho-hum. Some dogs have deficits in their play style and some are outright hostile. Others are accomplished play pros who know all the right moves.

What is your dog’s play personality?

If you have stopped going to the dog park because your dog’s behaviour wasn’t as polished as you hoped, please reconsider! What if your dog really loves to play with other dogs but simply doesn’t know how? What if playing with other dogs would make your dog happy and also improve their general behaviour and well-being? Do you really want to deny your dog this essential ingredient to a happy life? Yes, it may be easier for you to simply keep your dog on leash in public, but just how much is your dog missing out on? How much better could their life be, if they could only run free with other dogs?

Before you ban your dog from a lifetime of dog-dog play, please make sure you understand what normal dog-dog play looks like, including all the growling, barking, chasing and grabbing. Then – in case you do identify a genuine problem with your dog’s play style – explore the possibilities of changing your dog’s behaviour, ideally with the help of a reward-based dog trainer.

So here’s a taste of my – not yet patented – tonic. This one’s for free. May it help with whatever sucks the happiness out of you. Oh, and don’t miss the Chow at the end.

 

RESOURCES

ISpeakDog – Website on dog body language
Dog Body Language: Understand What Dogs Are Saying (Fear Free) – Video
Academy Play Week – Video
Puppy Play: Why it matters