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Dogs & Bikes--An Update  (6/09)

Writing about our gut-wrenching reaction to 2  dog-mauling events in Sicily in March of 2009 (1 fatal; 1 severely disfiguring) prompted our friend Julie to share her knowledge with us. Julie isn't a professional in the dog world but a student in it. She has taken a number of canine behavior classes in the process of certifying her dog as a ‘working’ dog in which the 2 of them assist others in times of crisis. Here is what Julie had to say over the course of 2 emails. 

Looking Less Threatening

It’s smart that you two take off your helmets if it seems safe to do so in the presence of a dog.  Like people, dogs carry really interesting emotional baggage and irrational fears, so backpacks, hats, sunglasses or anything out of the ordinary of how they view a ‘safe’ or ‘typical’ person can set off a fear or aggression reaction in dogs. 

Even simply being a tall man could cause an aggressive or overly submissive reaction in a dog if the dog was once harmed or severely frightened by one in their past.  What surprised me about dogs when I started taking classes on their behavior is how emotionally fragile and emotionally damaged they can be, and how long it can take to rebuild trust and rapport with humans as a result.


Why Dogs Charge Us

Dogs are highly attracted to the spin and flashiness of tires and wheels on cars and bikes, which is why they’ll often come out and chase them.  Canine behaviorist don’t know why this is, but it’s a pretty well documented behavior.  It’s less about the people and more about the vehicle. Add a few other hungry or crazy ‘wild’ dogs into the mix to increase the ‘pack mentality’ and wow!

Changes in Canine Behavior Theory

The philosophy and practice around dog behavior has really changed over the years.  The prevailing practices used to be centered around the whole ‘alpha’ philosophy and how humans need to show dominance in order to be respected and in control of a dog’s behavior. 

What animal behaviorists now know is that for most dogs, this 'alpha' approach teaches them that they should “fear” humans instead of teaching them to work as a “pack partner” with them.  So in effect what the strong ‘alpha’ training model did, in my opinion, was to produce the very kind of dog an owner was trying to break or prevent – a dog that has high fear/anxiety and as a result can be unnecessarily aggressive or submissive and deemed a “bad” dog. 

 The practice today is one of reinforcing positive behaviors in order to rid or reduce the negative ones.  And just like raising a child under these principles, people are able to break the negative canine behaviors without breaking the dog’s will or spirit.  So what you end up with is a “family member” (or to the dog, a pack addition) that fits, is happy, and works with you more often than not.

Dealing with Aggressive Dogs

  1. When it comes to managing a confrontational dog, feral dogs aside because they can take on some aggressive pack behaviors when trying to acquire food, the best things you can do are:
    1. Take off your sunglasses so the dog can see your eyes.  Since communicating via eye contact and body language is the predominant communication in dog speak, sunglasses can evoke fear in some dogs which may cause them to bark or become agitated at people mostly out of their own fear of you. 
    2. When confronted by a dog, look briefly in the dogs eyes and then look away or down for longer periods...and repeat a few times.  In dog language this is you saying, “I see you, but I’m not interested in interacting with you.” 
    3. And if you turn your head or entire body slightly away from the dog, you further signal that you wish to be alone and aren’t a threat to them.  Of course, like people, a dog may try and evoke additional aggressive responses from you, but more often than not, a few “I see you, now go away” signals is enough for a dog to lose interest and leave you alone long enough to ‘escape’.
  2. Based on how dogs send and receive communications, barking or staring down a dog sends a HUGE signal that you’re the alpha and if they don’t back down, that you’re more than happy to fight them for the alpha status.  Do that to the wrong kind of dog and you’ve escalated the situation, so it should be avoided whenever possible.  If this is how local people react to ‘wild’ or unexpected encounters with dogs than unfortunately they’re reinforcing aggressive behaviors in them.
  3. When you know what to look for, there are a dozen or so signals a dog sends that he’s aggressive.  The big ones to look for are:
    1. A high tail at the base by the hips. The higher the base of the tail, the more aggressive signal the dog is sending
    2. A high, straight tail ‘wag’ like a flag flying in high winds versus a soft, full body tail wag.
    3. “Whaling” in the eyes, which is when a dog opens their eyes so wide that you can see all the white around it.  They do this so that if you move around them, they can still see where you are and what you’re attempting to do.  Sometimes this is a reaction of fear and they’re keeping an eye on you and other times it can be a sign of aggression if done in combination with other ‘stress’ signals.

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