Do you ever catch yourself saying “my dog goes crazy for other dogs,” or “crazy for people” or “crazy for squirrels”?
If so, we have a little investigative research to be done before we can assess if this is a "Let's Play" type of crazy or a "I Want to Eat You" type of crazy. When clients and class students proclaim that their dog goes crazy in certain situations, I like to ask, “What does crazy look like?” It’s important to discern what is being observed about the body language, vocalization, level of focus and the behavior patterns of their dog to assist with indicating the intent behind their behavior.
First of all, moments of “crazy” often entail that the dog is on leash. Many dogs experience what’s called leash frustration or barrier frustration where their crazy behavior looks more amplified when they are on leash. When your dog is on leash and it sees something that it would like to engage with in a playful or curious way, it’s quite like the equivalent of being handcuffed to wall while watching someone hand out free wads of cash. If your dog is on leash but feeling fearful, anxious or otherwise threatened, it’s quite like being handcuffed to the same wall and having spiders crawl all over you. It’s confining and terrifying.
If your dog is in a state of arousal from excitedness or playfulness, he or she might lunge forward, lift up the front paws while on leash and yelp or bark in a rhythmic high pitch. The mouth is relaxed and open where the tongue is usually visible and the ears are forward indicating curiosity or interest. Your dog likely wants to interact with the dog, person or item, but physically can’t, causing frustration that looks quite overwhelming to the owner. The more the dog lunges but doesn’t go anywhere, the more frustration kicks in. The harder he pulls, the more amped up he becomes and pulls even harder (due to a function called opposition reflex).
On the opposite side, if your dog is fearful or anxious about another dog, a person or item, on the surface you might be tempted to see something similar including, lunging, vocalization and paws off the ground. However, the vocalization may be snarling, growling, or a persistent and fast-paced panicked bark. Your dog’s mouth might be tense and ears will be pressed back against the head. Your dog’s lunging on leash behavior might alternate with being crouched downward with their weight shifted onto their back legs ready to pounce, attack or otherwise defend their space.
Be aware that a dog’s tail may or may not be a reliable indicator in these situations. A dog who is excited/playful and a dog that is fearful/reactive may both exhibit a high and wagging tail indicating stimulation, in general. Just because a dog’s tail is wagging doesn’t mean that it’s a “happy” or “friendly” dog. Additionally, the dog’s hair on its shoulders and down the spine to the tail (hackles) could stand on end. This might also indicate excited/playful arousal or fearful/aggressive arousal in some dogs. Just because you see the hackles go up, doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is aggressive, but don’t rule it out either. It’s always a good idea to err on the cautious side and always maintain your space and your dog's space in unsure situations.
Also, be aware that just because your dog’s intent might be good, it doesn’t mean that another dog will interpret the intent the same way. Just as there is human miscommunication, doggie miscommunication happens quite frequently, too. Your dog’s animated behavior, although maybe well-intended, could likely trigger an aggressive reaction from another dog that isn’t completely receptive of interaction, or is feeling overwhelmed by the situation.
If your dog demonstrates either, both or a spectrum of “crazy” in everyday life, always maintain a safe distance from whatever it is that triggers your dog's behavior. It is also a very good idea to consult a qualified positive trainer, a certified animal behaviorist or a veterinary behaviorist to help you assess the situation and create a customized plan to help give you more control in these situations without creating additional behavioral issues.