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Overhead Dread

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

a brown Chihuahua displaying fearful body language

Back in the days when I co-ran a rescue center for wolves and wolfdogs, we sometimes brought ambassador animals to educational events. If the events were held outdoors, we had to screen carefully for banners, flags, and other overhead objects that were likely to flap around and scare the animals. This fear of things overhead is not limited to wolves and wolfdogs; many dogs also have a case of Overhead Dread.

Here’s a classic example: A child approaches to pet a dog by extending a hand palm-down over the dog’s head. The dog cringes and perhaps moves away. Sure, some dogs have learned to tolerate this type of greeting, but there are still plenty who actively avoid it, and others who will take the offense and snap or bite at the offending hand.

In contrast, this next example is something most people don’t think about. Many of my training clients with small dogs can’t seem to get their dogs to come to them. When I ask to see what they’re doing, they call the dog, the dog runs toward them…and stops just out of arms’ reach. Why? Because that dog knows that once he reaches the owner, she’ll swoop down and scoop him up. Now, there’s nothing wrong with holding your dog (or so I hear, said the woman who’s never had a dog she could actually lift). But it’s easy enough to avoid that swooping part by crouching down, turning to the side, coaxing the dog to you, lifting, and then standing up together, or else getting the dog to jump up on an ottoman or couch and then picking him up. Soon enough, the dog is coming in close when called.

Even trainers and other professionals who work with dogs and generally know better sometimes forget to keep this common canine fear in mind. I have seen many professional trainers shake the hand of a client directly over the dog’s head. If the dog were fearful, a bite wouldn’t be entirely surprising. I recently held my breath as I watched a pet photographer lean over a frightened dog to adjust a human subject’s jewelry. Fortunately, the dog didn’t bite, but he easily could have. I’m not exempt from making an over-the-head mistake, either. Back in the ‘90s, when I practically lived at the shelter as a volunteer, the one and only time I was bitten was when I’d taken a small, fluffy white dog out to meet a prospective adopter. When it came time to put the dog back in the pen, I leaned over her oh-so-cute fluffball pen-mate—and got bit in the face. It didn’t break the skin, but it was certainly a wake-up call. And it was entirely my fault. Had that dog been a 200-pound rottweiler, chances are I would have been paying much more careful attention to what I was doing.

Even though we “know” certain facts about dog behavior, even when acting accordingly becomes second nature, it’s good to remain mindful. Or, since I can’t pass up a chance at a rhyme, just remember: To avoid Overhead Dread, be mindful instead.


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