Is Your Dog All Bark and No Bite?
A viral video gives new meaning to being on the fence.
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If you’ve ever seen dogs bark at each other from opposite sides of a fence, you know that their reactions can be unpredictable once the fence is gone. Some dogs improve their behavior when given the opportunity to meet and interact without a barrier, but others may cause real injury. A rare few have no interest in any interaction other than barking at each other through the gate or fence — as is the case in the following viral video.
Why dogs bark through fences
I once saw a similar reaction with two German Shepherds who were barking at each other and walking along a fence. After traversing 50 meters of fence, they came to a spot where the fence was broken and suddenly there was no barrier between them. Both dogs stopped barking for a few seconds and looked stricken as they stared at one another with nothing to keep them apart. Then, one dog moved back to where he had come from and started barking through the fence again. The other dog followed on his own side so that soon they were back at it, barking away at each other on opposite sides of the fence as if they wanted to tear each other to shreds.
Dogs often choose not to be aggressive when they have another option. It is a reminder of the importance of avoiding situations in which dogs have no way out. The fence gives these dogs an out — a way to avoid being aggressive. Neither of these dogs wants to fight. They are both showing a common sign of fearfulness — the fear grimace, which is when they pull back the corners of their mouths. The fear grimace is a facial expression that allows us to see many of the dogs’ teeth, which is why it looks so menacing to us, but it is a behavior that indicates fear. In addition, the dog on the left approaches with its weight back and continues to lean back rather than charge forward. That is also a sign of a dog who is afraid rather than confident in the situation.
Although this reaction to suddenly finding themselves without a barrier is unusual, most dog behaviorists have seen it from time to time. For some dogs, the barking is motivated by fear, while for others, it’s a territorial response. So, it’s reasonable to expect the dogs to fight if given the opportunity (since they appear to be threatening each other). Still, other dogs lose control because the other dog’s repeated appearances bring on a state of high arousal and over-excitement. So, it would make sense for them to appropriately greet one another and maybe even play, if they were acting out of frustration at not being able to interact.
Feigned gate aggression?
I believe that this peculiar reaction of ceasing and desisting when there’s no fence to separate dogs (as seen in the video) can best be understood as a form of bluster. Imagine that the barking dogs are communicating something along the lines of, “Boy are you lucky that this fence is here! Why, if it weren’t for that fence, I would tear you paw from tail!” At the same time, the dogs could be thinking, in some canine sort of way, that the fence protects them from having to follow through. Their behavior suggests they understand that the barrier prohibits physical contact and that this understanding affects their behavior.
The situation is analogous to people in a bar, who are talking about fighting each other but are being physically restrained by their buddies, at which point they become more threatening with their words. They may say something like, “You’re lucky my friends are holding me back or I’d put you in the hospital!” while actually feeling relieved that they don’t have to fight. The physical prevention serves as a face-saving device for individuals who can talk a big game but don’t really want to follow through. Those people and these dogs can both accurately be described by saying that their bark is worse than their bite.
It’s hard, even for professionals, to predict how particular dogs will react if they no longer have a fence between them. In the video above, few would have predicted that when the gate is removed that the dogs would completely abandon their barking efforts and walk away from each other.
Karen B. London, PhD
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.