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Context is Everything

December 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Behavior

If you’re walking down the street, and someone you don’t know comes up and gives you a hug without any kind of introduction, how would you react? Given the context, most people would probably display shock or fear on one end of the spectrum, or downright hostility on the other end of the spectrum. This is because hugging a random person you don’t know in that kind of environment is not considered appropriate.

Many people don’t stop to think about this scenario from our dog’s perspective. We have an expectation that dogs should be friendly to everyone, under most circumstances. Despite displaying signals of discomfort that all dogs understand, such as turning the head away, ears back, licking the lips, tucking the tail, and rigid body posture, most humans don’t recognize these behaviors as signs of anxiety. So when a dog is approached by someone he doesn’t know, and the human ignores/doesn’t see the signs of stress, he may snap or bite and subsequently achieve unfavorable status as an “unpredictable” or “dangerous” dog.

Sadly, this happens all too often. As veterinarians, we frequently find ourselves counseling dog owners on what is considered normal and abnormal behavior.  The above example seems to be normal behavior, given the context. If a dog is approached in a stressful environment (for some dogs, this means anything outside of the home) by someone he doesn’t know well or someone who makes him nervous (e.g. shrieking children, people with hats or beards, or people with loud/harsh voices), he will display signs of stress. This can certainly vary from dog to dog. How many stress signals he displays, and the order in which he displays them, also depends on his individual threshold, or limit, of what bothers him.

To state this another way, think about this scenario. A dog sees his human’s suitcase out and knows something is up.  He can feel the barometric pressure dropping and knows a storm is coming (he hates storms). The neighbor comes over to say hi, who he likes, but he brings a young child with him who he’s only seen a couple times.  The child comes up to him while he’s eating his food, and the dog growls and snaps at the child.  Alarmed, the owner and the neighbor are shocked at the dog’s behavior.

If only one of those events happened (just a storm, or just the neighbor coming over), the dog probably would not have displayed aggression. But due to all these stressors happening at once, he passed his threshold, or the point of “I can’t take any more” and snapped at the child. Given the context of the situation, this can still be considered a normal (although unacceptable) response, and behavior modification measures can be implemented to address the problem this dog has with the unknown child.

Consider now a scenario where a dog is always edgy. Every little sound causes him to throw himself at the door or window, barking like a madman. He may be out in the backyard with his owner and the screech of a distant garbage truck causes him to turn and sink his teeth into his owner’s arm (a form of redirected aggression). Some people jokingly refer to these dogs as Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde, but the behavior is no joke. It is these situations that are truly concerning, because the behavior is very abnormal given the context.

When dogs are this edgy and this reactive, veterinary advice must be sought. Pharmaceutical intervention, in the form of anti-anxiety medication, may be needed. A veterinarian with an interest and background in applied clinical behavioral medicine can be your best resource.

Dangerous behavior must always be taken seriously. Don’t waste precious time in denial. If your dog, or a dog you know, has displayed anxious or aggressive behavior, please call us to learn more about how we can help.

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2 Responses to “Context is Everything”
  1. Jana Rade says:

    I find it mind boggling how little we, humans in general, bother to understand dogs. Even people who actually own one.

    Recently I read an article on how animals can read (and manipulate) humans. The secret is simple – they pay attention!

    If we weren’t so self-absorbed all the time, maybe we’d have a moment to notice things too.

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