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The Threat of Stillness

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

large dangerous dog giving hard stare to camera

I recently observed a temperament test that was meant to determine whether a dog was aggressive toward other dogs. The dog in question was a large, strong breed, and there was much concern because of his past history. As I watched, it became obvious that the other dog being used in the test was very worried. She licked her lips and averted her gaze, both common stress signals. But something else concerned me a lot more: she seemed afraid to move a muscle. Was it because the dog being tested was lunging at her, barking, or otherwise being overtly threatening? No. In fact, he was standing stock still, head slightly lowered, body tensed, staring directly at her. I could feel the tension in my own body just watching it. Seconds later, the dog being tested exploded in a display that, had he not been on leash, surely would have ended in physical harm to the other dog.

We are taught certain things about dogs early on. We learn that a growl is a warning, and that if a tail is wagging, that dog is happy (although that isn’t always the case). If a dog is lunging and barking we know to be careful, because the dog is emotionally aroused in a potentially dangerous way. But what we’re not taught to beware of is stillness.

As most trainers know, the vast majority of what is termed “aggression” is actually fear-based reactivity. While it’s true there are dogs who are flat-out aggressive, there are many more who are acting defensively. The lunging and barking is their way of saying, “Stay away from me! Don’t make me come over there!” In truth, these dogs don’t want to "come over there." What they want is for the scary thing to vanish into oblivion, preferably yesterday. But consider this: if a dog really means to attack, he will. A dog who is lunging and barking is spending precious energy on a display that, if heeded, will actually avoid conflict. But if a dog is standing very still, staring, body fairly humming with tension, he is conserving energy. That is a dog who should cause the hairs on your own neck to stand up, because he might very well attack.

I remember receiving an email from someone who had been bitten when he’d encountered a woman and her dog out in public. The dog had been standing stock still and staring at him. Not realizing this was a cause for concern, he had approached and reached out to pet the dog. The dog bit him. He had no idea why. The answer was in the first line of the email, where it mentioned that the dog was staring. If more people learned to recognize that particular type of stillness for what it is—a precariously balanced moment that could result in violence—more conflict could be avoided. Of course, there is a difference between a dog simply standing still and a dog who is in a tense emotional state that can easily boil over into aggressive action. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the difference. See the photo above? It's a stock photo. The photographer gave as the description, “Large guard dog with expressive eyes staring in disbelief.” As I'm not aware of what the dog was staring at I can't say what emotion he might have been feeling, but "disbelief" would not be my first guess. That stare would certainly stop me in my tracks.

Meeting this type of dangerous stillness with threats or aggression is never wise, and will almost certainly cause the dog to explode in violence. If you encounter a dog who is displaying this type of body language, don’t try to overpower or scare the dog. Instead, avert your own gaze, and back away verrry slowly. Notice I said back away, not turn and walk away; walking away offers the dog a chance to attack from the rear. If a dog has gone still when meeeting your dog, get your dog out of there as calmly and quickly as possible.

Next up, The Threat of Stillness Part II: Rapid Relief from Menace Mode. _______________________________________________________________________

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