Canine Behavior/puzzling to me
I'm not a dog owner but I saw a TV court show describing a dog attack. A woman was walking her Yorkie, and another dog being walked across the street (half Border Collie, half Australian Cattle dog, about 60 lbs), got loose from its walker and crossed the street to go to the other dog. They sniffed each other first, and then the larger dog started to maul the Yorkie (If I had a dog, I'd be over-protective and paranoid about letting another dog get even close to mine, for fear of something exactly like that happening. Yet I see people do it all the time, which I don't understand). In this instance, I don't see how anyone can know for sure, but do you have any idea what could have made the one dog attack, especially when it was preceeded by just mutual sniffing? Could there have been something about the scent of the Yorkie that set off the other dog or could it be something else? I find it puzzling. Thanks
Thank you for your question.
Many dogs are able to greet other dogs when on leash and then go about their business and have a happy day. Dogs are social animals and so frequently do want to greet others, just as we might smile and nod as we pass by people walking down the street or through the mall.
Some dogs, though, aren't as comfortable on their leash. Many dogs have had bad experiences where they were challenged by another dog or frightened and so they barked or growled and then the owner yanked on the leash and this increased the dog's sense of concern. Then we develop an unfortunate cycle where the dog sees another dog down the street and thinks, "Oh no! My person gets really upset when another dog comes near. I'll tell that dog to go away" and the dog barks. The owner then tightens and yanks on the leash and the dog thinks "Great! Even at that distance, my person is super uncomfortable with strange dogs. Next time I'll tell the dog when it's further away to stay back or I'll get in trouble" And on the flip side, the owner thinks, "my dog is barking and lunging, I'll correct this poor behavior" and they tighten/yank on the leash. The next time the owner sees a dog down the street, they think "Oh great... here we go again" and they tighten the leash in anticipation of the dog reacting, which tells the dog that they're going to get in trouble and actually CAUSES the dog to react. It's a bad cycle that creates an escalation of the dog behavior and increased frustration, anger and embarrassment for the owner and before you know it, that dog "can no longer be walked" because he's so reactive to other dogs on the street.
Owners often make the situation worse. In the case you describe, one dog got off his leash and came over to check out the Yorkie. Again, leashes can impede a normal, healthy interaction. If off leash and left to their own devices, most dogs will sniff, do the circle dance and then separate or play. When on leash, the separation isn't an option unless the owner gives them space to move apart (and often leashes get tangled because owners aren't great at the circle dance that the dogs are doing). So, what happens all to often is that the initial greeting lasts a second too long. They're just too much in each other's space or looking each other in the eye for literally just one second too long and then it turns from a greeting to a challenge and the only way to deal with that is to tell the other dog to back up and give space. In dog language that is done by barking, snarling and growling and lunging. These are all distance-increasing signals.
Now, specifically in the case you described, the larger dog could have moved away since he was off his leash (or at least no longer attached to his owner). But here's the thing. When owners tighten up on that leash, they end up pulling the dog's body up which creates a "puffed up" look and a raised head, which is Dog for "I challenge you!" So, while the Yorkie owner may have been pulling on that leash trying to move the Yorkie out of the way, they actually ended up causing the Yorkie to give a clear challenge display. It's entirely possible that the other dog had just come over to say "Hi! Wanna be friends" and essentially got slapped across the face by that unintended display by the Yorkie and so the dog's response was "F* you too!"
Of course, this is all speculation as I have not seen video of that encounter. But I've seen that scenario play out more times than I can count, so I think it's a pretty good guess at what happened. It's also possible that the Yorkie was nervous and began to bark - which would have caused the owner to pull harder on the leash, causing the Yorkie's front paws to come off the ground and really display a challenge . . .
In the end, just like humans, the vast majority are friendly and will get along and like to meet and interact with others. Some are less comfortable in social situations. And in the end, the humans often mess it up without even realizing that they're causing the problem or making it worse.
Ideally, when two dogs meet while on leash, the owners will keep the leashes quite loose with no tension on the dogs. They'll follow their dog around the circle dance so that if it's necessary to move away quickly, they can do so easily without tangled leashes. The initial greeting should be literally 3 seconds or less, and then cheerfully call the dogs away. This relieves the social pressure of being in each other's space and gives the dogs an opportunity to take in and process the greeting they just had. Then, a second greeting of similar length can happen if both dogs are comfortable. Third greetings can be a bit longer, but still short unless the dogs are now trying to play. Owners should always be watching BOTH dogs for signs of stress or fear.
Stress/possibly going to bite or growl: stiff/rigid bodies, ears pricked forward, tail stiff, standing tall (up on toes), mouth clamped shut, freeze (this may be a micro second of all movement including breathing halted). A freeze is the last moment before the dog is going to overtly react (bark, lunge, bite).
Fear: averting their gaze, turning away, rounded back, tail tucked, ears pinned back, blinking/squinty eyes, drooling, panting excessively, getting lower to the ground, dropping to the ground and showing belly, urinating during the greeting.
These are not exhaustive lists, but some of the most commonly seen behaviors that indicate it's time to separate the dogs without delay.
I hope this helps bring some understanding for you. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist