Older Brits will recall the cheery Monty Python Lumberjack Song. “I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK…” is how it starts off. Visions of plaid shirted friendly toilers of the earth (well, forest) wielding axes may not seem like an obvious analogy to help us understand dog behaviour, but bear with me.
Imagine…you are in a strange place. A man appears. You pause to observe him. He looks at you. He is waving a VERY large axe about. What happens next? Do you go to him and say hello in a friendly fashion, or run away screaming?
How do you decide if he is a friendly lumberjack just limbering up or a mad axeman intent on parting your head from your body?
THAT Is a situation we might be putting our dogs in every time we take them out and they meet other dogs.
The extensions to this analogy are numerous. If you live in Canada, in a forest, and you know your neighbours employ lots of men to chop down trees you are already going to be predisposed to believing any axe-wielder is a safe and friendly lumberjack, not an axe murderer.
But if you are visiting a strange place – say an empty and isolated old house in the middle of nowhere, not expecting to meet anyone, then your first responses might be very different. What if you had seen the film the Shining? Images of a crazed Jack Nicholson clearly focused on you, heading in your direction, chopping through doorways in his attempts to reach you, are likely to produce primitive fight/flight responses!
What influences our responses is complicated. Our past experience – good and bad, make a difference. If we are raised to believe all people wielding axes are friendly lumberjacks, we could come very unstuck if we go up to the one who is a ‘Mad Axeman’ to say hello. But on the other hand if we believe all axe-wielders are ‘Mad Axemen’ and react with aggression to get him to stop his attack then we are in danger of assaulting every lumberjack we meet.
If in the past we have had personal experience of being attacked by a ‘Mad Axeman’, and KNOW (for a fact) that some men wielding axes can be highly dangerous (OK – I accept the analogy falls over a bit here as its doubtful you’d survive the experience to learn anything much from it…) then the chances of us feeling kindly towards anyone we suspect might be a ‘Mad Axeman’ are slim.
We need experience of observing and judging the difference between the two, safely. We need to know which are the safe axe wielders, and the unsafe ones. Whilst there are few ‘Mad Axemen’ out there, we (as are dogs) are hard wired to be suspicious of things that we haven’t learned are safe.
But therein lies problems in handling our dogs in the real world where they see dogs without knowing if they are the doggy equivalent of a ‘Mad Axeman’ or a nice friendly lumberjack. It perhaps raises more dilemmas than answers. Should we expose our dogs to ‘Mad Axemen’ in a safe way so they observe and learn not to go up and to not give them a friendly hug? Or learn what signs of aggressive intent mean, delivered in a less extreme way? Or do we want our puppies to grow up naively unaware that there are bad guys out there?
In theory in would be great if our dogs knew they were safe because they’ve learned to put their trust in the human holding the lead – but in reality most reactive dogs have learned the hard way that human judgements about such things often fall short of ideal and they (we!) make mistakes.
Helping a dog that appears to believe all axe wielders are ‘Mad Axemen’ to realise there are in fact a lot of friendly lumberjacks out there is an invaluable lesson. That the ‘Mad Axeman’ is the exception, not the rule. The trouble is they largely (understandably) don’t want to hang about or prolong the encounter in order to find that out. Usually we cannot know why these dogs perceive other dogs as ‘Mad Axemen’ and sometimes its hard to know if they are truly scared since signals when dogs are aroused can be confusing and unclear.
But one thing that our dogs must learn from us is that they are safe when they see what they believe is the doggy equivalent of a man wielding an axe – that whilst it will be helpful to learn the difference so they don’t need to panic any more, they need to know their owners aren’t going to force them closer or expose them to them in a way which neither allows safe, thoughtful observation nor the possibility of escape. Allow neither then don’t be surprised if he reacts just as you would if you found yourself trapped in a room with a Mad Axeman!