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When Dogs are Riding a Stress High

I was walking at the park with a friend recently when we ran into a man walking his dog. I had chatted with the man on other occasions, and his 90-something pound mastiff mix had always been friendly toward me. This time, as my friend and I encountered them on a narrow pathway, the dog suddenly growled, snarled, and lunged at my friend. He was leashed, but the lunge was so forceful and sudden that it knocked the man off balance, and he went down. He managed to hold on to the leash, but there was a breath-stealing moment when I wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep his grip. I had visions of having to wrestle the dog off my friend. Fortunately, the man held the leash tightly and was not injured. Once he stood and began talking with us, I suggested to my friend that she remove the wide-brimmed hat she was wearing, as I suspected it was what had set the dog off. (Hats and dark glasses change our silhouette and can freak some dogs out.) She did, and there was no further lunging.

The pair then walked up to me to say hello. I greeted the dog the way I normally did, but to be perfectly honest, he made me nervous. Yes, this was a dog who had never shown any aggression toward me at all, and had, in fact, been friendly. But he was also a 90-something pound dog who had just had a lunging, snarling emotional spike. The adrenaline was still flooding his system, which meant he was not in his normal, calm state of mind. After a very brief petting which the dog initiated, I asked the man calmly to please move the dog away from me.

I have no doubt my friend and the man both wondered why I was being so cautious. But think about a time when you’ve been extremely angry at someone, or even had rage flooding your system. Maybe you were in the midst of a horrific argument. What if, right then, I came up to say hello? Assuming we’d always been cordial with each other, do you think you would regard me with the same calm, happy-to-see-you feelings as usual? No doubt you’d say something like, “This isn’t a good time.” Dogs, unfortunately, aren’t able to tell us it isn’t a good time, and when they are still riding that stress high, bad things can happen.

A similar situation sometimes happens at dog parks. All the dogs are playing reasonably nicely with each other, all is well…and then a fight breaks out. The two dogs involved are extremely agitated and are attacking each other. The owners finally separate them. Those two dogs, who had been playing nicely with other dogs up until then, are now amped up. Where is all of that residual angry tension going to go, do you think? I’ve seen it happen time after time that once a fight breaks out in a previously peaceful group of dogs, more fights follow.

In my book Help for Your Dog-Reactive Dog, I recommend that if a dog-reactive dog has experienced an incident involving serious reactivity or aggression, that the owner should still walk him, but for a few days it should not be in an area where he could encounter other dogs. Although adrenaline levels return to normal in a fairly short time, other stress hormones can remain in the system for a few days. Whether a dog is normally reactive with other dogs, people, or anything else in the environment, I believe all owners, and certainly trainers, should be aware of how a dog’s physiology and emotions can be different for some time after experiencing a reactive or aggressive incident, so they can act accordingly to keep everyone safe. ___________________________________________________________

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