What is your dog handling demeanor, and does it matter? Your demeanor is your look, manner, bearing, attitude, expression and presence when managing, directing and leading your dog. It matters because dogs will pick up on your demeanor, and the demeanor of those around you, and that will affect how they will behave…
Let’s start with the bottom line: yes, dogs pick up on the demeanor of those around them. This phenomenon can greatly influence how a dog, or group of dogs, responds.
Here’s a good example. I was hired to do a lesson for a small dog that was very territorial and had already bitten someone. That bite wasn’t bad, it didn’t break the skin, but any biting dog is a significant liability problem. One of the owner’s friends attended the beginning of the lesson. Her answer to the problem was to tell the person who was bitten that if they just wouldn’t act afraid of the dog, the dog wouldn’t bite. It was a challenge to the victim to take another risk of being bitten by manning up and getting in the dog’s space. She also started walking the dog towards me with this dog on a leash as it was snarling, glaring, and then lunging. In essence, she was goading the victim and myself to prove ourselves to her and her friend with this dog, and she was encouraging the aggressive behavior of the dog.
Since this was the Evaluation part of the lesson, I told her to stop what she was doing. Her diagnosis and remedy were not correct, her demeanor was such that it was going to encourage the dog to bite again. The victim had already told us that he “wasn’t responsible” for what he’d do to the dog if it ever tried to bite him again, so his demeanor wasn’t friendly nor was it non-threatening. And my demeanor wasn’t such that I wanted to allow this dog a chance to bite my bare ankle (I was wearing shorts) as it was lunging and glaring and snapping at me.
The owner was looking for a solution so her dog would safely allow anyone into her place. This dog had been found as a stray, clearly it had a background of some bad experience(s) with people, it was overly bonded to the new owner, the owner was too passive, the dog didn’t trust people it didn’t know, and it had learned that threatening behavior made strangers go away. None of that was going to be fixed by just acting confident around the dog. This dog needed work and the relationship with the owner (and her demeanor) needed fixing. The owner also needed to learn to manage those around this dog, as well.
On the other hand, let’s say this was a situation where the owner wanted the dog to bite a criminal. I would want the owner to display a different demeanor around this dog when strangers attacked. In that case, the assumption is that you are in a fight that must be taken against a criminal. Look at the demeanor of Muhammad Ali during his famous fight against Joe Louis… the look is dominant, aggressive, and predatory towards the opponent. Look at real fighters of any type and any era. Real fighters are there to stop or destroy their opponents, psychologically and/or physically. You can also see this look in the demeanor of top athletes in a variety of sports. During the game, look at the face and posture of the top baseball pitcher, tennis pro, or martial arts fighter. That same demeanor, towards the criminal, not the dog, will cue your dog into a more focused and aggressive attack and to fight alongside you. Another demeanor is if the dog perceives you are helpless, and has seen that over time and assumed the role of protector. I’ve seen a number of dogs which were overly protective of children, people who were disabled, people who were terrified, and those with PTSD. On the other hand, if you overly dominate your dog, especially in such a dangerous situation, you could shut your dog down and it might just stand by and let you be harmed. Unfortunately, many a dog has been killed because some crazy, disturbed and angry criminal sent their dog to attack an innocent person. Similarly, weak and ineffectual dog owner/ handlers have contributed to innocent victims being bitten by their dog. I’ve also seen dogs which have bitten family members, or gotten into brawls with the other dogs in the home when husbands and wives had bitter, loud, angry arguments. In the worst cases, the dogs “thought” they were protecting the owner and the home, it attacked the victims, and the police came to the rescue and shot the enraged dog dead.
Your mindset, and your resulting demeanor, are something to seriously consider whenever working with a dog that has a previous serious bite history. Your demeanor could end up getting you, or someone else, a trip to the emergency room or morgue. Dog owners are responsible for what their dogs do, so working through the proper demeanor around any such dog needs to be worked out over time in order to safely handle and manage such a dog. It isn’t as though you can ask such a dog about its troubled childhood. Many dogs require some thoughtful experimentation over time to figure them out. However, even with the perfect demeanor, there are still dogs that will bite unprovoked. There is no safe and risk free way of training and managing all dogs. If you have a dog with a biting potential, especially if there have been indications along the way, then you have to accept that you might be able to manage some of what is going on, but you might not ever be able to 100% trust that this dog will never harm someone or another animal. That’s life. If you can’t accept that, then find the dog another home and get a stuffed animal. These dog training gurus who promote that they, or you, can mystically control and tame every dog aren’t being honest. Anyone who works with enough animals, especially dogs, will eventually get bitten. That also includes dog owners. Own a dog, and there is always the risk someone or some animal can be hurt. That’s the nature of the animal world. Demeanor is a potential factor in how a dog behaves, but it isn’t everything.
Lastly, there is the proper demeanor for the everyday management of a pet or therapy dog. I spend a considerable amount of time addressing this in my Obedience classes. Here is an example. I am currently working with a relatively passive 1 year old dog. He’s a nice dog, but he doesn’t take much initiative and hasn’t been all that responsive to the lessons. It isn’t as though he doesn’t “know” what the commands mean, because at this point, he does. But his response rate, that is, how often he obeys the first command, is lower than the average dog with the same amount of training. At this point, I am now purposely changing my demeanor around him. And guess what? After just that one change in how I’m carrying myself around him, his response rate, and his level of attentiveness and affection, have all gone up noticeably. Similarly, I have to coach therapy dog owners regarding how they carry themselves around their dogs. It can make a huge difference in the performance and effectiveness of their dogs, and help manage the other people around them.
This is why I often have a discussion of proper mindset during Obedience and Therapy Dog training. From there, we go over proper demeanor. How we relate to the dog must change over time the deeper we get into the training. My demeanor with an untrained dog is different than with a trained dog. My demeanor is different with some breeds than others. My demeanor is different with puppies than adults. My demeanor is different with shy dogs, fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, and so on. My demeanor is different depending upon different social situations with that dog. Then, I have to get the owner/ handlers to modify how they relate to the dogs and situations in order to get maximum performance from their dogs on a consistent basis. Since every dog and owner is different, there is no fixed formula that will apply equally to every combination of people and environments.
So, what is your demeanor, and is it appropriate to the contexts where you place your dog? This is something to seriously consider.