A while back at our local dog park, a German Shepherd mix was running the length of the chain link fence that separated the areas designated for smaller and larger dogs. A small dog on the other side raced back and forth with the Shepherd. They seemed to be having a fine time. No one was getting snarky, no one was upset, and in fact, the Shepherd wasn’t making any sound at all. Then I noticed he was wearing a shock collar. I asked the woman why, and she said, “Because he barks when he plays.” After recovering from my own moment of shock, I said, “..and?” “And,” she responded, “it bothers people.” After a brief discussion where I explained that it’s natural for dogs to bark when they play, just as it’s natural for kids to scream and yell when they play—not to mention that if people come to a dog park they ought to expect to hear dogs barking—she seemed willing to consider that her dog might not need the collar after all.
Sierra and I normally visit this dog park before it gets crowded, and then take a hike around the surrounding area. Unfortunately, this morning a severe headache precluded me from being able to do any strenuous walking, so we stayed in the dog park longer than we usually would. I knew the usual early-bird dogs and people there, so I wasn’t too concerned about Sierra getting into trouble. She got along fine with the three dogs, all of whom were a bit smaller than her. Then a sweet mixed breed about her own size entered the park. She’d met the dog before and they’d gotten along fine. When the dog entered, the three smaller dogs rushed up to greet her. I allowed Sierra to as well. Everything was fine until one of the smaller dogs got between Sierra and the new dog. She snarked at him. Yes, I know, snark isn’t exactly a technical term, but I think you can visualize what I mean. Teeth were shown, a sound was made, and had there been a dog-to-human translator handy, it would have read, “I like you well enough, but for now, kindly stay out of my way.” The owner of the small dog became concerned, but because I could see that the small dog understood Sierra’s communication and responded by backing away, I wasn’t worried. I was glad the woman hadn’t made a move toward the dogs, because sometimes a stiff-bodied, barely breathing, stressed out human can turn a small canine “discussion” into something much worse.
I’m not saying snarkiness is a good thing, and I’m not excusing it, either. But I think that many times our own stress levels spike very quickly when we see what is, to dogs, normal communication. It makes sense for us to have a primal fear response to seeing those long, curved teeth. An internal alarm bell rings: Danger! Run away! To dogs, teeth can mean danger too, of course; but it’s interpreted in a quick, intuitive flash that takes in the entire context and situation as well as the actual body language. I’m guessing this primal fear we seem to have (some of us more than others, depending on how much time we’ve spent around dogs) is the reason so many people freeze up when they see two dogs get into a fight. Even if one of the dogs is theirs and the dog is clearly in danger, it’s as though the person is rooted in place.
Thankfully, the vast majority of canine communication is understood more clearly by other dogs than it is by the average dog owner. And while we should always be advocates and protectors for our dogs, and remain ever vigilant, sometimes it’s good too to remember that they’re dogs, and their behavior must be interpreted in the canine context, not the human one.
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