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The Threat of Stillness Pt. 2: Rapid Relief from Menace Mode

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

large dog giving a hard stare

Last week’s blog The Threat of Stillness received many comments. Some readers had observed that stock still, staring, danger-radiating pose in an unfamiliar dog they encountered, while others saw their own dog display the body language toward other dogs. More than a few asked what to do when it happens.

Before exploring solutions, I want to clarify that the type of stillness we’re discussing is not the stalking sequence’s frozen moment before the dog explodes into chase, often seen in breeds such as the border collie; it’s not the moment preceding a hunting dog’s swift pursuit, or the seconds before the pounce of a dog wanting to play. It’s not even the sort of continual scanning the horizon type gaze that some hypervigilant sighthounds demonstrate. The type of lock and load stillness I’m talking about broadcasts a serious threat. Remember, the still, focused dog is conserving his energy to attack. One reader described it as “the calm before the storm,” and another called it a “marshalling of forces.” Those are both apt descriptions.

Let’s first talk about what not to do. When a dog is so precariously balanced emotionally, it is all too easy to push him over into aggression. If you are the unfortunate focus of the dog’s attention, yelling at the dog, grabbing him, or trying to dominate him is likely to escalate the situation and tip the balance in an unfortunate way. Running away is likely to trigger the dog’s chase drive. As mentioned in the original post, averting your gaze (while keeping the dog in your peripheral view) and backing away slowly is the best option.

Sometimes, though, there’s no space to back up. Years ago, I’d gone to see a new client with a large, male German Shepherd. Thor had a bite history with many, many triggers. He’d been on a long, loose leash held by the owner throughout our session. (This was in the early days, when I still trusted owners to restrain dogs.) Things had gone very well. Thor seemed comfortable with me and the clients were attentive. I was sitting in their living room chair giving homework suggestions when I noticed that the man had dropped the leash. I wasn’t too worried, as the dog had been calm throughout the session. Just then, Thor walked up to my chair and in a slow, purposeful way, placed one of his paws on each arm of the chair, leaned in until his face was inches from mine, lowered his head, stared into my eyes, and issued a low growl. I immediately averted my gaze while turning my head very slowly slightly to the side and down. I wanted to ask the client to call Thor or to him or to grab the leash, but I was afraid the man might do it less than calmly, and tip the balance the wrong way. Since I knew the dog was well trained in basic obedience, I said in my best, cheery trainer voice, “Thor, sit!” Apparently the stars were in alignment because he immediately sat and cocked his head as if to say, “Yes, what would you like me to do next?”

My point in sharing this story is to say that in a dire circumstance like this, attempting to switch the dog into another mode just might work. What if your dog is staring down another in that about-to-explode way? Offense is the best defense, in this case meaning you learn to recognize the signs and situations where your dog might go into this type of posture, and head it off at the pass. But if it’s already happening and your dog is off leash, the goal is to get him back on leash in as calm a manner as possible, without startling him into action. If you have a long leash, you could turn it into a slip lead (pass the clip end through the loop to form a lasso) and then gently and quietly slip it over your dog’s head. Then, try some kissy or clucking type sounds to get his attention, and lead him away. (The lasso lead may be a safer, easier alternative with some dogs than reaching under the neck to clip the leash on, especially since the latter requires you to place your own body closer to your dog’s face.) Be careful, because no matter how much your dog loves you, in such a tense situation there’s always the chance that he might redirect.

While getting your dog back on leash is always a good idea, you might not always be able to do that. A great solution, and one that is best implemented with careful pre-conditioning, is to switch your dog out of Menace Mode into a more relaxed, dare I say even happy frame of mind, much as I did with Thor. How to accomplish this? Simple: use your voice and body language. Call your dog’s name in a happy tone of voice, followed by whatever cue is likely to have the most effect. If your dog is super food motivated and knows, “Cookie!” or “Treats!” use his name followed by that word. If you’ve trained him to follow you at the cue, “Let’s go!” or something similar, that’s what you should try. Again, be sure to use the happy tone you’d use for “Want to go for a walk?” One last alternative, if your dog is very bonded to you, you could simply walk away sing-songing, “Byyyyye, Buddy!” as you go. There are a lot of dogs who, while invested in staring down another dog, will still be a lot more invested in not being abandoned.

Many dogs become conditioned to respond to words like “cookie” or “treat” because every time their owners utter the words, the dogs receive a reward. Imagine if those owners decided instead that the word for “Cookie” was actually “Come!” There would be some amazingly well trained dogs out there…but I digress. Both a conditioned cue like “Cookie” and a “Let’s go!” type phrase meaning to follow you should be trained at home and then practiced in progressively more challenging and distracting situations. In fact, they should be proofed to the point that no matter what type of emotional state your dog is in, he will automatically respond. You should eventually be able to switch that full-on Barking at the UPS Man arousal instantly to Let’s Get a Cookie happy time. It takes some time and effort, but it most definitely can be done, and is a safe, effective way to switch your dog out of Menace Mode.

If the situation is an off-leash dog staring at your dog in that still, threatening way, if you feel it’s safe, stand in front of your dog. If the owner is present, call her to get her dog. If the person does not respond or is not present, such as in the case of encountering a stray, you will have to assess the situation and make a judgment call. Some dogs, while perfectly happy to threaten other dogs, are not willing to stand up to a person; many dogs, if you simply say, “Go on!” in a certain tone of voice, and perhaps wave them away, will leave. (Again, this is a judgment call; doing so could set some dogs off.) Especially in a situation with a stray dog, you must be careful not to escalate the situation. Scattering a handful of treats behind the dog is a safe way to defuse the situation so that you and your dog can walk away. (There are many other ways to deter an oncoming stray dog, but that’s a topic for another blog.)

Hopefully none of you will ever have to face a truly dangerous situation with a dog who is in that still, menacing mode, but if you do, I hope the ideas in this blog will help you to get yourself and/or your dog out of the situation safely.


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