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Defusing Awkward Situations
Casual comments when aggression is brewing

The dog was scaring me. He was heading towards us, calling to mind a true wild predator. Moving slowly, silently and with unsettling stillness, this dog was stalking us and I felt true fear. This was a 70-pound tall and leggy dog who had a coyote-like look to him. He was only about 30-feet away at the hole next to us on the disk golf course where we had come with Marley. His family showed no signs of concern with their dog’s behavior and perhaps they had not even noticed it.

I resisted the urge to shriek, “Call your dog! What made you think it’s remotely okay to have a stalking dog off leash around kids and other dogs? Sheesh!” Blaming or shaming them with a knee-jerk response such as that would have done nothing to accomplish my goal of influencing their behavior to make the situation safer and less scary. Instead, I faked calmness and said, “I think your dog is making our dog uncomfortable.” This was a serious understatement as Marley seemed truly distressed by this dog’s approach.

It turned out to be a good choice of what to say. One guy in the group casually said, “Oh, sorry,” and called his dog with a cheerful, “Bear, Come!” Bear trotted over to him and regained a relaxed and playful body posture. I was still glad when they left not long after.

It feels satisfying to diffuse a potentially tense situation that involved the potential for canine aggression as well as social awkwardness between people. I wish it were always possible. The previous day, I had tried to make light of a situation with a dog and had failed miserably and comically.

I was out for a run and feeling tired though I still had a few miles to go. I was inspired by the peppiness of a Boston Terrier who was headed towards me while out for a walk with a young couple. As we approached each other, I said exactly what was on my mind: “I wish I had the spring in my step that your dog has.”

The dog reacted by barking and lunging at me, hitting the end of his leash and making a bit of a scene. The people were probably hoping as we approached that we would all ignore each other, so that their dog would not have an outburst. Sadly for them, they had come across their worst nightmare—an extreme dog lover and an extreme extrovert, so that was not to be.

It was my attempt to diffuse the situation rather than my original comment that was really the mistake, though. After I had remarked on the dog’s energy and she had replied with her, “BARRARRARR BARRARRARR,” I said, “See, she has so much energy!” My intention was to try to lighten up a tense situation and to let them know that I was not scared or angry. These things happen, as I know as well as anyone. Understandably, they just looked annoyed.

When I came home and told my family about it, my 9-year old son’s comment was, “Do you think they thought maybe you weren’t that smart?” (It’s a reasonable conclusion about someone who has described a dog’s aggressive barking and lunging as “energetic.”) I replied, “Well, I’m sure they didn’t think I was an expert in canine behavior, and they’re surely not praising my social skills.” I just didn’t want them to feel ashamed or bad in any other way, as I know so many people do when their dog’s behavior falls short of perfection.

Have you had luck—good or bad—diffusing awkward situations involving potentially aggressive behavior?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

photo by Tyler Long/Flickr

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