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The (dog) family and the wire net

I’ve started to observe and analyze dog’s behavior behind a fence back in 2004, when I started assessing the ex-fighting pit bulls. One of the subtest was moving towards the kennel gate, stand still for 5 seconds, bent down, talk in a friendly way for 20 seconds, move the hand near the metal grid. Near, since some of the dogs were trying to bite us, and we had to keep the parameters as constant as possible in the tests.

The question, of course, was: how much does a fence, a gate, influence the dog’s reaction?  In this study, I could compare the dogs reactions to the tester inside and outside the box. Usually the aggressive reaction is stronger behind a fence.

rescue pit bull

Assessment of a rescue pit bull

This could be associated with risk assessment, the dog might feel safer behind the fence and therefore dare to threaten and attack. But it could also depend on a higher level of arousal and barrier’s frustration. In some cases, it can be a learned response: a guarding behavior.

You might think that since the fence is associated with a stronger reaction, it is useless to assess the dog in this context,  since the dog is not showing its real attitude towards a person (or a dog). The same applies to the use of a leash. How many owners have I heard saying: “My dog is reactive only when on leash, off leash he/she is fine”.

If a dog displays an aggressive behavior when the stranger approaches the kennel gate, and is neutral and tolerant during the sociability test (the tester is holding the dog on leash), should I still score aggressiveness through the behaviors displayed inside the kennel?

dog try to bite

A dog trying to bite me during an assessment

I started using the fence also during socialization classes.

Back in 2007, I used to have groups of dogs and owners in a fenced area, and I was using the fence or the gate to match the dogs in a safe condition. I started to ask dogs if they wanted to get into the fenced area, and meet other dogs, or to get out or it. It is quite easy: if dogs want to get in, they move towards the gate, and display neutral or friendly signals.

If they want to get out, they move towards the gate. They can use an incredibly clear communication towards humans, to make them open the gate. And, this is what amazes me every time, they perfectly understand the difference between the fence, an unbreakable barrier, and the gate. Even dogs that have never been at Laghi, can use the fence and the gate on purpose and from the first time.

The video shows Una, female great dane, moving inside the fence to stop the interaction with Satèn.

The fence allows me to match dogs in a safe condition, but, as we have seen, it could also affect the dog reaction to the point of staggering the result of this initial observation. How can I predict the dog reaction inside the fenced area, if the first reaction is strongly affected by the presence of the barrier?

I changed the perspective on the  whole “fence/gate” issue when I moved to Laghi. A different space has shaped my mind and my perspective, in the most unexpected way. For a series of fortunate events, I now work outside a fence. I have a smaller enclosure, inside a bigger fenced area. When I run communication classes, dogs and people are outside the fence. I still use the fence for assessments and during classes, but I’ve changed the way I use it, and how I teach dogs to perceive it.

The assessment begins with the family moving towards the fence, closing the gate and unleashing the dog.

I start talking to the owners, and that makes them moving close to me. I usually start talking facing the gate, but I can move towards the fence. In this moment, I am using the fence to let the dog express his/her real emotions and motivations towards me.
The owners do not feel in danger, the dog cannot bite me, they are not controlling, inhibiting, managing the dog with the leash. Apparently, I am talking to the owners, but I am really starting a conversation with the dog. Will you let me approach the gate? Do you feel safe? Do you want me to move away? Are you worried about your owner’s reactions? What will you do if I look you in the eyes? If I talk to you? If I touch the gate?
The fence gives me plenty of time to gather informations about the dog, and his/her reactions towards me, the owners, the environment. I do not focus on the dog reaction, or first reaction. I don’t try to change the dog’s behavior, I simply don’t feel the need to control the dog or prove owners how powerful and in charge I am. I just want to communicate and get as many information this context can provide to me.

socialization classes

During this assessment, Grisou, my border collie, is helping me to get and give information

The use of the fence is more complicated in dog-dog interactions.

I used to think that the fence allows dogs to express their emotions in a safe condition. It is highly interesting to observe and analyze the “fence-fight” between two (or more) dogs. I still use the fence to match dogs, and to help dogs coping during the first interaction with an unfamiliar dog. What changed, is now I think that some dogs just can’t cope, and even though they are not in a real danger, they will never feel safe enough to switch from a self defensive aggression to a different strategy. In this case, I do not allow a direct fence interaction. Same with dogs that have a strong tendency to a guard behavior. My end goal is to show dogs how to use the fence and the gate as a safe space, a coping strategy. The fence does not always trigger a stronger reaction. It can make the dog feel safe, therefore less reactive (not reactive).

The fence, as any barrier (also the leash), can be associated with a feeling of safety, wellbeing.

Dogs have no chance to make decisions regarding the use of the gate (well, they do it at Laghi), they can only rely on our capability to make them feel safe, trust us, rely on us. Don’t betray their trust.

aggressive dog behavior at the gate

Hold the gate!

Text and article photos Alexa Capra 19 september 2019

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