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A Startling Reaction

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

One dog with mouth over another dog's muzzle

Remember when you were a kid and one of your friends would sneak up from behind, cover your eyes, and say, “Guess who?” My friends learned quickly not to do that to me, because my body apparently has an immediate, hard-wired response to lash out when I’m surprised. Granted, this reaction came in handy when I lived in New York and a guy in a ski mask grabbed me from behind in an attempt to mug me, but that’s another story.

Not all lashing out, however, is directed at the source of the startle-causing stimulus. When a dog is startled by a sudden noise—for example, a vacuum cleaner—the dog may not go for the source of the sound, but instead, redirect on to whatever is nearby. Unfortunately, “whatever is nearby” may be another dog or person. This scenario is often seen in dog parks and play groups, where one dog is jumped on, hip slammed, or otherwise surprised by another dog, and instead of turning around and responding to the offender, he redirects on to a nearby dog.

Whenever Sierra is startled by something in the environment, her immediate response is to attack poor, hapless Bodhi, who is inevitably standing nearby. To be fair, it’s not a full-on attack, but more of a drive-by snarking where she lunges at him, delivers an open-mouthed, inhibited bite on the level of one she’d use during rough play, and then immediately backs off. I’ve seen her do it on a few different occasions when my husband has turned on the electric coffee grinder in the morning; there’s just something about the pitch and suddenness of that sound that causes her to immediately fly at Bodhi.

Every now and then Bodhi makes a sound I have heard people call “backward sneezing”—it’s sort of a wheezy gasping that comes on suddenly, and stops within a minute or less. Sierra normally ignores it, but last week when Bodhi made the sound, Sierra was right next to him and she snarked at him. These episodes never result in a fight, as Bodhi normally just looks a bit surprised and then walks away; sometimes the snarking initiates a round of rough play.

This morning, I was sitting at the computer, working on a project. Both dogs were lying on the carpet near my feet. The calm quiet was suddenly interrupted by Bodhi loudly passing gas. Sierra immediately flew at him. Once I’d stopped laughing, I reflected that I’ve certainly never come across this particular canine behavior problem before. I began to imagine the question posed to an online discussion list: “Dear fellow trainers, whenever my dog passes gas, my other dog attacks him. Can you please suggest a desensitization protocol?” I’ll let you imagine the rest.

Fortunately, Sierra’s snark-attacks don’t happen all that often. I suppose that with a lot of time and effort, I could condition her that whenever something startles her, the default is to look at me. Then again, my husband and I know the things that—flatulence notwithstanding—normally set her off. We manage these situations by doing things like making sure that before the coffee grinder is turned on, Sierra is outside or Bodhi is at least far away from her. But one thing’s for sure, every time I think I’ve seen it all behaviorally, something else happens to, well… startle me.


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