A walk in the park?

One of the worse nightmares while walking a dog is when you bump into another leashed canine.  Sometimes this awkward encounter will result in furious exchanges of barks between two dogs with the owners pulling hard on their leashes. Here we find out why.

Dogs are said to pay a great deal of attention to our movements, behavioral cues and facial expressions. According to an anthropologist, Brian Hare, “dogs are really interested in humans, interested to the point of obsession. To a dog, you are a giant walking tennis ball.”

“I think they are looking at our eyes and where our eyes are looking, and what our eyes look like,” the ethologist Patricia McConnell, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says. “A rounded eye with a dilated pupil is a sign of high arousal and aggression in a dog. I believe they pay a tremendous amount of attention to how relaxed our face is and how relaxed our facial muscles are, because that’s a big cue for them with each other. Is the jaw relaxed? Is the mouth slightly open? And then the arms. They pay a tremendous amount of attention to where our arms go.”

In her book The Other End of the Leash, McConnell decodes one of the most common of all human-dog interactions – the meeting between two leashed animals on a walk. To us, its about one dog sizing up each other after first sizing up their respective owners. The owners “are of ten anxious about how well the dogs will get along,” she writes, “and if you watch them instead of the dogs, you’ll often notice that the humans will hold their breath and round their eyes and mouth in an ‘on alert’ expression. Since these behaviors are expressions of offensive aggression in canine culture, I suspect that the humans are unwittingly signaling tension. If you exaggerate this by tightening the leash, as many owners do you can actually cause the dogs to attack each other. Think of it: the dogs are in a tense social encounter, surrounded by support from their own pack, with the humans forming a tense, staring, breathless circle around them. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen dogs shift their eyes toward their owner’s frozen faces, and then launch growling at the other dog.”

You can avoid a lot of dogfights by:

  1. Relaxing the muscles in your face
  2. Smiling with your eyes
  3. Breathing slowly
  4. Turning away from the dogs rather than leaning forward and adding more tension.


“Fighting Dogs” by Rachel Baum. Dog Wars. URL: http://blog.timesunion.com/bark/files/2009/05/fighting-dogs.jpg (accessed on 2 April 2010).

Gladwell, M. 2009. What the Dog Saw. Penguin Book Ltd. London, UK.

McConnell, P.M. 2003. The other end of the leash: why we do what we do around dogs. Ballantine Books. United States.

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