“It’s fine, my dog is OK. I’m not worried.” Then something happens. It may be described as out of the blue, without warning: a snarl, snark, snap, bite. “I thought he was fine, so I did not stop what was going on.” The dog was still, quiet, maybe described as calm and even accepting of something. I find that stillness is a behavior many people misunderstand.
I was asked to evaluate some dogs for a regional, breed-specific rescue. I am going to focus on two I will call Rico and Luke. They were housed at the same place so interacting with the same people on a daily basis. The dogs had been there for a bit and the group was ready to put them up for adoption. The rescue organization wanted a second opinion on the dogs. The vet assisting the group knew me and asked if I would help. I met the dogs in a more neutral area — outside. I was able to control the environment to a greater degree.
As the rescue representative walked Rico out, the dog maintained a loose leash. The rescue representative exclaimed how wonderful and chill this dog was. There was no barking or lunging, no reactivity. Rico did not initiate interaction. Rico ignored tossed treats. When presented with another dog, Rico stayed still and watched.
As the rescue representative brought Luke out, Luke was all over the place. He had no self-control and zipped about like a squirrel on caffeine. He jumped and barked. There was no respect for personal space with people. Luke lunged at treats when tossed and tried to get to the person delivering them. When he saw the calm dog across the parking lot, Luke bounced and yipped.
When I asked the rescue representative’s opinion of the dogs, he claimed Rico was ideal and Luke was not as adoptable. Rico needed little work and had great manners. Luke needed a lot of work and was aggressive.
Here is what I saw with the two dogs:
Rico was giving clear freezing, pausing and stillness signals. Sometimes these signs are fast and missed. This was not the case with Rico. There was no missing what Rico was saying, if you knew what to look for. I was incredibly careful as I worked around Rico. I gave him space, but Rico was not going to relax. When you study dog communication and the Canine Ladder of Aggression, the behaviors Rico gave were a couple rungs from a bite.
Luke was all over the place, yes, but every movement was loose and wiggly. He sought people out. He responded to voice and touch. He wanted to engage. When Luke showed me he wanted to come along with me, Luke responded to food and began giving me desired behaviors. Luke caught on fast and began to settle down. He was a sociable goofball.
What can happen when stillness is misread? One case comes to mind. A mother was shocked her beloved dog bit her youngest child. During the initial visit, I pointed out how many times the dog paused or completely stopped and became still as the child was doing things. Just before the bite, the child slid under the dog as the dog ate. The dog stopped and stood still. Mom assumed this meant the dog was alright and did not stop the child. The dog, his signals ignored, ratcheted up to a very controlled bite.
Stillness, this is a signal all people interacting with dogs must recognize and respect.
Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.