Despite what we often may think, dogs can be pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t.
I’ve written plenty about their behaviors and what they mean, but one of the things I am still learning about is dog thresholds. According to Mardi Richmond at the Whole Dog Journal, a threshold is “when your dog crosses from one emotional state to another.” They might be happy one second and concerned or stressed the next. Often the stress or anxiety comes from an outside trigger, like seeing another dog or a person or even seeing a new object in their environment.
Although I had plenty of experience with dogs crossing thresholds at the animal shelter, I don’t even think I knew what the term meant back then. I just knew that some dogs would go from being relaxed and happy to lunging and barking whenever they saw another dog.
What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that the term can also be applied to dogs who go from relaxed and happy to shutting down or freezing in fear. They might be totally different emotional states, but the same thing is happening. They are crossing a threshold.
In the early days, Daisy had a low threshold for nearly everything in her environment – the car, the house, wood floors, people, noises, sudden movements, and me. Any of one of these could put her into a fearful state, but put two or more of these together and you could guarantee she would pretty much shut down, going into a nearly helpless state. Have you ever seen a dog get a vacant, empty look in their eyes? That was Daisy in the early days.
These days, Daisy has a much higher threshold on a whole lot of things in her environment, but I also know that a combination of any of her triggers could still cause her to shut down again. It’s something I always keep in mind whenever I am trying to decide whether to bring her along with me to an event or to leave her behind at home, where she will be safe. Most of the time I leave her at home, unless I know I can control the environment for her. I do the same with Cupcake as well. She has a much lower threshold for new people and activities than Daisy, but unlike Daisy who just shuts down, Cupcake’s first reaction is to flee. I just won’t put her at risk of getting lost again. She is happier at home anyways.
Understanding dog thresholds has taught me how to keep my dogs safe, but for other people it may be how to keep them calm. Knowing what they are and how they work can go a long way towards improving your relationship with your dog. I know it has with mine.
I don’t know if you’re interested, but I found a great video that explains a little more on thresholds and something called “trigger stacking.” It is really worth watching if you want to understand your dogs better.
Yesterday I read a painfully poignant post by Phyllis DeGioia about her dog, Dodger and her decision to put him down due to his aggression (“Euthanizing Aggressive Dogs: Sometimes It’s the Best Choice“). Her words were not only powerful because they came from her own experience, but also because they so clearly articulated the conflicting emotions and guilt one feels when faced with euthanizing a dog due to aggression.
Societally, it is so much more acceptable to euthanize a dog for old age or illness than it is for a dog with behavioral issues. And yet, many a pet owner has had to face making this type of decision. I admire Phyllis for her courage in writing about her decision to euthanize Dodger.
In 2011, I wrote about a dog park friend who had to make this difficult decision after her cream-colored Golden Retriever showed serious signs of aggression at just 11 months old. After trying to resolve the issues herself, then seeking out a trainer, and finally taking Sally to a veterinarian animal behaviorist at the University of Minnesota, she was faced with two options, constantly supervise and manage Sally around her two young children or put her to sleep. The veterinarian made it very clear that Sally’s aggression was not something that would ever get better. It was not her or her husband’s fault. There was simply something wrong with her wiring. And so, she made the difficult decision to put her to sleep. I cried with her as she walked with Sally one last time around the dog park. It was a heartbreaking a decision, but I supported her.
Sometimes something just goes wrong with a dog. He is born with genetically bad wiring or is mentally ill or has suffered so much from abuse, that euthanizing him is almost a kindness rather than a cruelty.
I feel for the pet parent who has ever had to make this type of decision. It’s never an easy one. There is so much guilt, shame and fear. Guilt because you feel like there was something more you could have done or that you somehow failed your dog. Shame that others will think you a bad pet owner. Fear at what might have happened if you hadn’t made such a difficult decision.
I used to be one of those people who thought every dog could be saved, but my experience as a shelter volunteer has taught me otherwise. Probably one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make was to recommend a dog I loved, one I had worked with for weeks, be put to sleep. His aggression had reached such a level that even I, the one who loved him most, became afraid of him.
Phyllis’ own words from her experience with Dodger summed up exactly my last experience with him – “Being attacked by someone you love is a visceral slam to your gut. For a short while, rational thought is gone. It happens so quickly. Your body shakes, and your heart pounds as the instinctive fight-or-flight response is set off.” My recommendation to euthanize him was not an easy one, but I don’t doubt my decision to do so. Sometimes, the most difficult decision is the right one.
Reading Phyllis’ piece made me think of one I had recently read on Patricia McConnell’s blog titled, “Love, Guilt & Putting Dogs Down.” Although Patricia’s post was addressing the guilt we all feel as pet owners when we have to say goodbye to beloved pets, I think these words were particularly applicable to those who must make the difficult decision to put an aggressive or damaged dog down.
“It is easier to believe that we are always responsible (‘if only I had done/not done this one thing….’) than it is to accept this painful truth: We are not in control of the world. Stuff happens. Bad stuff. As brilliant and responsible and hard-working and control-freaky that we are, sometimes, bad stuff just happens. Good people die when they shouldn’t. Gorgeous dogs brimming with health, except for that tumor or those crappy kidneys, die long before their time. Dogs who are otherwise healthy but are a severe health risk to others end up being put down. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it hurts like hell. But please please, if you’ve moved heaven and earth to save a dog and haven’t been able to… just remember: Stuff happens. We can’t control everything. (Difficult words to dog trainers I know. . . Aren’t we all control freaks to some extent?) You didn’t fail. You tried as hard as you could. It’s okay.” (“Love, Guilt & Putting Dogs Down“, by Patricia McConnell, The Other End of the Leash)
If you have ever had to euthanize a pet for reasons other than illness or old age, I feel for you. You carry a burden that is more difficult to bear than most. It’s hard enough to euthanize a pet when they are ill and you know that you are easing their pain, but harder still to do so when it involves dog aggression or mental illness. Shame and guilt might be feelings you have, but they have no place here.
Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes doing everything you can to save a dog is just not enough. You did your best. You did not fail.
Besides the Minnesota Sheltie Rescue Reunion, there was one other event I was really looking forward to attending – the Dog Body Language seminar being presented by my friend Kate Anders. Unfortunately, I let the crappy Minnesota winter (I refuse to call this spring) get to me. It snowed most of the morning and rained the rest of the day. I thought it would be too icy to venture out at night. I was wrong. I should have gone. I love attending seminars like these because I learn so much. (I am so sorry Kate!)
With that on my mind today, it shouldn’t be surprising that this video would capture my attention Monday night. My friend Mary Haight over at Dancing Dog Blog shared it. I was immediately fascinated.
It is a great example of the dog body language of a threatening dog. Some people might find the video funny, but what I saw was all the signals the dog gave that signaled an attack was about to happen. Can you pick out the signs? The most obvious one is the growl (notice how it is almost a panting growl), but there are more signals there. Try listening with the sound off. What do you see?
Not sure? Let’s walk through the many of the signs I see.
First, notice the dog’s eyes. They are staring straight ahead at the dog in the mirror – this is seen as a threatening behavior by most dogs. Two dogs staring at one another (a direct stare) is a sign that trouble may be just ahead (unlike two dogs playing with one another who will look at one another but also look away.)
Also notice how hard the dog’s eyes are compared to say, your dog. They are not soft and liquid. They are hard and focused and most likely dilated. They are not blinking either.
Now look at the body posture. The dog is leaning forward and his body is stiff. These are more warning signs.
This dog also shows his teeth and his upper lip and nose are wrinkled. More danger signs.
Not surprisingly, he did attack… the dog in the mirror.
In most cases, another dog will back down when faced with these kinds of body signals, and offer appeasement signals while doing so, but when faced with a dog that does not back down then it can escalate.
Does this mean this dog is a danger? Not necessarily. But it does mean that when faced with another dog giving threatening signals (and ignoring appeasement signals), he is not likely to back down either.
Obviously, in this case, neither dog could back down since it was the same dog and his reflection. While it may also seem funny to most people, to me it is a great lesson in dog body language.
*****Just wanted to add a few things my friend Dee caught that I missed: “Interesting to see a dog exhibiting threatening behaviors (freezes in place, stares straight at the dog in the mirror, doesn’t blink), interspersed with discomfort/appeasement (lip licking, slow, side-to-side tail wagging, some crouching). When he doesn’t get clear signals the other dog doesn’t mean him harm, the appeasement reverts to threats.” Thanks Dee!
In the piece, Suzanne shares an email (see below) from a concerned dog owner who is confused by her dog’s “aggressive” behavior towards “young, hyper dogs.” If ever there was a description of Jasper, this was it. Cream and Jasper are hewn from the same cloth when it comes to young, hyper dogs. They don’t like them. Most especially when the young, hyper dogs who get in their face don’t recognize (or ignore) the behavioral cues being displayed to them as a warning.
Jasper’s most easily recognized behavioral signals are: a stiffening of his body, his tail curling up and pointing towards his head and the curl of his lip. If a rude dog chooses to ignore those signals, then Jasper will put them in their place. And, he has done so on several occasions.
As his owner, it is my responsibility to intervene before Jasper has to say or do anything. I try to call Jasper to me when I see trouble coming. I have also caught many a hyper puppy before they could get to him and also warned them (and their owner) off before they can get to Jasper. I try to be the one who keeps Jasper from having to express himself with these rude dogs, but on occasion, one does get past me. And, then I have ask the owner to call their dog back to avoid any issues. Unfortunately, not all of them have great recall.
The one thing I haven’t done very well is explain Jasper’s behavior in a way that makes sense to the average dog owner, who does not understand dog body language and behavioral cues and does not see their dog’s behavior as being “rude.” So, I often end up placing the blame on Jasper, not because he is necessarily doing something wrong, but because it’s easier to explain “He just doesn’t like young puppies.” or “He doesn’t like dogs jumping on him.” or “He doesn’t like other male dogs (which isn’t true).” than to explain that my dog doesn’t like your “rude” dog.
I know I am doing Jasper a disservice by explaining his behavior in such a way as to make people seem him as an aggressive dog, but how else do you explain rude dog behavior in such a way that it makes sense to the average dog owner? I welcome any ideas you may have.
In the meantime I will continue to intervene, dodge and defer to avoid moments like Suzanne mentioned in her piece.
You don’t know me, but L. is a friend of mine, and she suggested I write to you regarding the strange behavior of my dog. I have a female (spayed) golden retriever, 3 years old, named Cream. Cream comes from good lines (champion show), and is “almost” your typical golden: sweet, goofy, lovable, loves ALL people. Recently, Cream became a certified therapy dog through the Delta Society.
Yet Cream has one problem: she hates young, hyper dogs. If a dog starts jumping all over Cream, Cream gets aggressive – starts to growl, shows some teeth, and if the dog doesn’t take the hint after a few seconds, Cream will “attack” the dog. Every time this has happened, it’s happened very quickly, and I get Cream off the dog immediately (and “correct” her – laying her down, holding her muzzle, shaking her a bit, saying “NO!” very sternly, etc.). Cream doesn’t even like young dogs to lick her – she snaps at them if they do.
Now, Cream only displays this aggressive behavior with young, hyper dogs. Cream has regular dog pals that she plays with almost daily – they wrestle, play bite, and run around together. Some of the dogs she plays with are older, some are the same age, some are even younger, the youngest now being about 9 months old. She plays with both sexes, but she does seem to prefer males. (Cream was spayed at 10 months.)
Cream is in good health. She’s on a raw foods diet, had titer testing this year instead of vaccinations, had a full blood panel and thyroid check and both were fine, has been CERFed and her eyes are fine. She does have some mild hip dysplasia, but it doesn’t bother her, and she shows no symptoms. She’s been very well socialized since she’s been a pup, and I bring her everywhere I can (shopping malls, parks, sometimes to campus).
Cream’s been through lots of obedience classes, beginning when she was a pup at 4 months old in puppy kindergarten. For the past several months she’s been going through a basic obedience class with young dogs – I’ve been trying to recondition her behavior towards young dogs. I’ve been food rewarding her when she shows no aggressive behavior to a pup.
It’s been going okay, but two weeks ago, a young mastiff puppy got away from her owner, and came charging at Cream. She crashed into Cream (and it was just because she was over excited – she wasn’t being aggressive) and Cream came up growling and snarling. Then last weekend, a black lab pup did the same thing, and Cream had the same reaction. Throughout the class, Cream won’t even look at the puppies – has her back turned toward them the entire time.
I’ve got the dog trainers of the class stumped, as they don’t really know what to do. Cream’s normally such a sweet dog, good with commands, great with people. Cream’s also wonderful with children, and has an endless supply of patience with kids – they can pull on her ears, hug her tightly, pull on her tail – and Cream loves it. Cream’s fine with dogs who are calm, even friendly towards them, with her tail wagging, and she might even try to get them to play.
Cream has had some bad experiences with dogs. A pit bull jumped out of a car when we were on a walk, and attacked Cream (Cream was about 7 months old). She’s had dogs run out of houses and attack her, and dogs who were supposedly tied up, get loose and attack her.
So, do you have any suggestions or theories for us? Well, I’d really appreciate any thoughts you have on our situation.