How I Kept a Game of Chase From Becoming a Dog Attack


I was hiking on a recent morning with a friend and her two Labradors, 9-year-old Obie and 2-year-old Maddie. With me were my three dogs, 14-year-old Rascal, 5-year-old Oscar, and 2-year-old Timber, as well as 10-month-old Sadie, a gorgeous Golden Retriever client. Within the first five minutes of letting all the dogs off their leashes, the situation got out of control and could have been a disaster were I not paying attention.

My friend’s dogs don’t get out much on the trails, yet they’re not new to them. Mostly they get exercised with walks or with play in their yard. Neither are aggressive, and both are great off leash and with other dogs — until today. They know all three of my dogs and never show bully behavior with others, but anything’s possible, right? RIGHT!

Dogs playing chase
No one can catch Timber, the mighty dog. This is a healthy game of chase. (Photo by Jill Breitner)

There are two elements that were different on that day. I had the new dog in training, Sadie, who is very gentle and sweet with other dogs and people. While she comes from a very loving home, she doesn’t get much socialization because her owner is ill. I’d had her in training for a week, and she’d met other dogs, been on this trail, and was doing great, eagerly meeting and greeting dogs with a happy tail. The other element that was different was Obie, who has lost most of his hearing.

Given that I’m pretty neurotic, especially when I have a client’s dog with me, I am always on. With Sadie being new to the nearly deaf Obie, I knew he might feel more vulnerable and very likely might behave differently. I watched as all the dogs ran up the trail and back down, having what seemed to be a great time.

Predatory stalking or chase is not fun. (Illustration by Lili Chin)
Predatory stalking or chase is not fun. Photo courtesy of Dog Decoder (Illustration by Lili Chin)

It was then that I noticed Obie starting to stalk Sadie in a predatory way. I saw that Sadie was running but she wasn’t happy. She hadn’t experienced a dog stalking her before. She looked like the dog in the illustration above, not as severe, yet she wasn’t running in play. Sadie was anxious. Obie was on her in an intense way. She felt his energy and didn’t like it.

I told my friend that Obie was stalking Sadie and that we needed to get him, now. Trouble is, Obie couldn’t hear her calling him; was intent on getting Sadie. When she came back down the trail, I called her to me while bending over and she flew into my arms with relief, all 65 pounds of her. My friend was astonished.

She hadn’t been sure what I was talking about until she saw the hackles up on Obie’s back followed by him shaking it off; dogs shake off anxiety in much the same way we take a deep breath when we realize all is well. Maddie had also joined in on what she thought was fun and had I not been paying attention, both dogs could have pursued Sadie and the chase could very well have turned into an attack.

Dogs shake off to release stress.  (Illustration by Lili Chin)
Dogs shake off to release stress. Photo courtesy of Dog Decoder  (Illustration by Lili Chin)

We have domesticated dogs and we can train them. Yet, in the end, a dog will be a dog. If we don’t know how to read their body language when they are about to do something very dog-like and out of character, we can miss the opportunity to stop a dog fight, bullying or fearful behavior and then we will wonder how it possibly could have happened.

Predatory stalking happens all the time at dog parks.  People don’t recognize that it is not a fun game of chase between dogs. The dogs involved are no longer having fun. They’ve become overly aroused and anxious. Watch out and intervene so that all the dogs can have time to chill out. Only when they are not aroused, should play resume.

I put Sadie on the leash for about five minutes while everyone cooled their jets. I told my friend that we would switch off in a few minutes, with her putting her dog on leash and me letting Sadie off again. We didn’t need to, though. Once we broke the spell and continued walking, within a few minutes, all was well and both dogs enjoyed the rest of the hike off leash. I had my eagle eyes open for sure. I don’t know how not to, and you shouldn’t either.

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