Canine Aggression: The Public Perception
Hannah Blumenfeld talks warning signals, and ponders why dogs who indicate via body
language and warning signals that they are out of their comfort zone are often
misconstrued as being aggressive
Not a nice dog,” says the woman on the sidewalk. Lucy and I had just walked past her, and although I was shoving treats in Lucy's mouth, the woman locked eyes with my beautiful beast. This scares the bejeezus out of Lucy, so she barks. And, yes, sometimes lunges. I do not correct the woman; I don't tell her that Lucy is, in fact, a very nice dog. A couple months earlier, we were walking past a family of four. First came the mom and older daughter. They both got what I call the “happy-doggy face.” The girl tells me that Lucy is cute. I say thank you, adding that Lucy does not enjoy attention from strangers, that it's best to ignore her. Next come the dad and younger son. Dad is laughing, says, “yeah, yeah, ignore the doggy, okay.” He doesn't take me seriously. Lucy's had enough and barks at the boy, who literally cowers in fear. Terrible does not even begin to describe how I feel. Half a block away, the dad shouts back to me, “Ma'am? Ma'am? There are lots of families in this neighborhood, lots of children. That's an aggressive dog you've got there. And we have dogs, we're dog people.” I don't tell him that I live on the block, that I know the neighborhood very well, thanks. These are my most embarrassing stories, the ones that I retell to myself while playing the imposter game—you know, that's where you say to yourself, “I can't possibly be a dog trainer. If I can't even control my own dog, how can I help anyone else?” In other words, I'm an imposter. I'm not really a dog trainer. I can't—or shouldn't—be. Lucy is an American Staffordshire terrier. I have watched tiny dogs react to people the same way Lucy does, and people both on the receiving end of such aggressive signaling and the owning end of such dogs laugh about it.
Nobody has ever, ever laughed about Lucy. She's a very high-drive dog. She needs a job, a task, and until she gets one, she can be pretty hyperaroused, or beyond her frustration threshold. So when we're at the river and someone has a ball, Lucy is silently alert at their feet, waiting for the ball to be thrown, the ultimate signal that, yes, she has a job to do! Sometimes, the human holding the ball stops throwing to say, “Oh my!
But here’s how I see it: If I ask you to please ignore my dog, and you don't, then please don't get angry with me when she barks at you. I don't expect the world to revolve around me and Lucy, but I don't think it revolves around you, either. When Lucy is off leash, she avoids people. She makes the right choice every single time. Even when people reach out to touch her, she moves away from them, her ears flattened. She really just wants to be left alone... 44
BARKS from the Guild/March 2019
Photo © Hannah Blumenfeld
American Staffordshire terrier Lucy (above, with owner Hannah Blumenfeld) does not enjoy attention from strangers and may bark or lunge at them if they approach uninvited in an attempt to avoid their advances
What a pretty girl you are! Do you want this ball? Huh? Do you want me to throw this ball? Do you?” So Lucy barks, a high-pitched, insistent bark. Most people just throw the ball. But some will freeze. They'll turn to me, say, “I don't know what she wants.” Or, “Your dog is scaring me.” I have watched countless other breeds do the exact behavior Lucy does at the river, and nobody ever acts scared. Is Lucy being aggressive? In this case, absolutely not. Here's the thing. I know Lucy. And I am a dog trainer. I try very hard to manage our environment, to not take walks when there are likely to be many people out, to veer off the sidewalk into the street when we can. But sometimes we can't; sometimes there's a car (or seven) coming and there's no driveway or other place to hang out and play obedience games while we wait for people to pass us. (This is how we ended up walking past the family of four.) So I ask people to ignore her, and when they listen to me, Lucy is fine. She fo-