Protect Your Dogs in the Danger Zone

I posted an interesting video on Facebook yesterday about cats who are Monty Python fans (None shall pass). According to the comments I read on Facebook and elsewhere, most people think this footage says a lot about cats.

I think it says even more about dogs. And what dogs consider a danger zone. There’s information in this video that can help every dog person manage interactions between their dogs or their dog and visiting dogs.

Take a look. And if it’s too long, after you get the gist of what’s happening, move forward to see what happens in the last thirty seconds.

Did you notice anything interesting?

In every situation, cats were guarding a door, hallway, or staircase. The cats positioned themselves so the dogs had to pass closely. And narrow transition areas are a danger zone for dogs.

Let me explain what I mean.

You Can’t Run in the Danger Zone

Dogs don’t like to feel trapped.

Actually that’s true for a lot of animals. But I get to watch dog behavior every day. I haven’t seen a cheetah around the house in months.

The fewer options a dog feels she has, the higher her stress level. And the higher her stress level, the more likely she’s going to get in a fight.

Honey the golden retriever is tired of the attention.

I’m getting a little tired of you. I think I’d like to go now. (Which she did.)

Here are some of the danger zones I always look out for when I’m around a group of dogs:

  • doorways
  • tops of staircases
  • rooms crowded with furniture
  • gates
  • the entrance to the dog park
  • narrow sidewalks with shrubbery on both side when we’re walking on leash

The only time I ever saw Honey snark at a foster dog was when I tried putting on leashes in the doorway near the closet where we keep them.

Now I move out into the empty foyer to put on leashes and make sure my body is between the dog getting leashed and the other dog or dogs waiting.

Dog separated from puppy by a baby gate in the doorway danger zone.

Let me in. I’m not going to hurt the little guy.

Characteristics of a Danger Zone

My list might not include areas that are danger zones for your dog when he’s around another dogs (or cats). These are the characteristics of a dog danger zone:

The space is confined – any time a dog can’t get away from another dog without brushing close to him, you’re creating a danger zone in stressful situations. When a foster dog first arrives at our house, if I see activity happening behind the couch I immediately step in and herd the dogs into a more open area.

The area contains something desirable to the dogs – outside doorways are double trouble—the area is constricted and everyone usually wants to go outside. But it can also be a favorite couch, bed, or feeding area. Not only will the dogs be wanting the same desirable thing, but one dog deferring to the other won’t have room to express his deference by moving out of the way.

The dog is constrained even if the area is open – this is the reason many people prefer off-leash to on-leash greetings. If there’s tension between the two dogs, they have more freedom to work it out if their motions aren’t prevented by the leashes.

I’m always looking for danger zones when I bring a new dog into the house.

A typical dog park danger zone.

Typical dog park danger zone – dogs crowded around a picnic table, an obtuse owner.

Managing Danger Zones

Honey is a placid dog. I don’t lie awake at night worrying about how I’m going to keep her from getting into scraps with other dogs.

But we do bring foster dogs and guest dogs into the house on a fairly regular basis. So I have a plan for managing danger zones. Or rather, for keeping them from happening at all.

  • Introduce the dogs outside in the open area in front of the house. If that goes well, we bring both dogs into the back yard and move well away from the house and the gate before letting them off leash and allowing them to approach each other.
  • When we come in the house, we move quickly and with purpose through the door to avoid hanging out in a confined area.
  • Before bringing a new dog into the house, I remove all toys and allow only supervised play until I’ve witnessed several episodes of toy-stealing that doesn’t result in problems.
  • If a dog likes hanging out at the top of the steps (one recent foster did just this), I coax him to a new spot so everyone can move freely without tripping over him.
  • At the dog park, we don’t enter until there are no dogs hanging around the entrance (people who say long goodbyes piss me off to no end). And once we enter, we immediately move away from the entrance so other dogs can enter without being rushed.

Am I making too big a deal about the danger zone?

Maybe. Or we could just ask those dogs in the video trying to avoid the cats.

Disclaimer: I am not a trainer or a behaviorist. I’m just sharing what I’ve observed. And part of what I’ve observed is that although behaviorists and trainers don’t talk much about danger zones (or transition areas), they instinctively break up dog activity in these areas. If you have problems with dogs fighting in your home, contact a qualified, science-based, trainer who will teach you force-free ways to manage your dogs’ interactions.

Your Turn: Have you observed stress in your dogs around “danger zones?” Does your cat torment our dog? If so, where do the biggest problems happen?

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  1. Margaret T says:

    What I disliked most about this video was the way people lied to their dogs. “It’s OK. Come on.” Well, getting clawed isn’t OK. Way to mess up your recall, people. Either let the dog make the choice on its own, or move the cat so the dog feels safe before you call.

    I don’t have a cat because I’m allergic to them, or I’d probably have a couple.
    And we don’t go to dog parks. But my golden girl was snarky most recently when an unaware owner let her big, friendly dog trap us where we were sitting on a bench, up against a wall, with both dogs on leash, and then shove his face in hers.
    We have a similar routine when we get fosters: pick everything that could be construed as a toy or a chewbone up. Introduce them with a parallel walk, if possible, then allow the meeting and sniffing in the neutral place you have walked to. Go back to the yard and let the new dog walk around the fenced area alone so he gets to familiarize himself with the lay of the land. Then catch him up and hold him midyard while my dog goes through the gate, and turn them loose with short leashes on. The only fight I’ve ever had occur between a dog of mine and a foster (and not bad enough to require veterinary attention) was over a tennis ball in the yard that I had not found, but my dog did, and the other wanted it.

    • Yes, I had the same frustration with the video. And who keeps shooting video of their dog being unhappy instead of stepping in and taking care of things?

      Apparently a lot of people.

  2. I don’t think you are making too big a deal out of it at all – this is the type of awareness ALL dog owners need. I didn’t notice this too much with Sally & Tino because they were both pretty even keeled and never ones to get stressed about much of anything – except if dinner was late. But Maggie & Jack are different as they came with more baggage. Maggie in particular is very sensitive to enclosed spaces – unless it’s in my office in her bed which is her safe zone. But she zooms through doorways and only if they are open and no people standing nearby. She doesn’t usually follow us into the bedroom or bathroom as there’s no easy exit, so she waits outside. Interestingly, she’ll come in when it’s just me, but she still has some concerns about dad. If more owners were aware of all the ways our dogs speak to us, and responded to it appropriately, we’d have many fewer dog fights and dog bites!

  3. Leroy was actually in a danger zone the other when we were standing in line to get pictures with Santa. We were standing in an aisle in the store and another Newfie owner came over with their dog to say hello, the dog was happy at first with a normal wagging tail and then all of a sudden I noticed his hair stand up and his tail went straight up in the air. I immediately told my husband to be careful(he was the one holding Leroy) and as soon as I said that the dog growled and lunged at Leroy. Luckily the dogs were a safe distance from each other but Leroy was nervous and he immediately turned around and wouldn’t look at the dog again. You could tell that Leroy wanted somewhere else to go other than being in a narrow aisle so my husband took him outside until the other dog left.

    • I think that pet supply stores on a busy day have lots of danger zone spots. Glad the incident with Leroy wasn’t worse.

      Good idea to give him a chance to calm down in the open air.

  4. Ann Sowards says:

    You are dead on right about the narrow passage way thing. My more aggressive cat (COC, Cat On Crack) ALWAYS positions herself in a gate or doorway when she wants to intimidate the dogs…ok, poor Mercedes…but when she is in the house, which is not often, she avoids those areas. As she gets more familiar with the house and the layout of escape routes, I’m sure she’ll be ambushing them inside as well as outside.

    • I don’t know what’s with these guarding cats. Maybe people need to stop getting German shepherds and start getting guard cats.

      Or do they only act that way with dogs?

  5. Good tips. My dogs will even act this way at times when the pack leader is laying at an entrance to one of our dog sheds. Just won’t pass if their is not enough room.

  6. I have a couple of danger zones to watch out for….the back door leading to the yard. We keep it locked with a key, so to let the boys out we need to grab the key ring and open it. This jingle of keys starts the adrenaline rush….both boys want out first so they can get the primo rabbit chase….There is a sofa bordering the door on one side, the key-holder on the other, and the tight spot and jostling to be first has led to many a loud fight. I am always on the lookout for trouble at this spot.
    My other spot is when Jimmy and I queue up for one of our agility runs. Most people have treats to keep their dogs focused, and there are several of us queued and ready to go in a tight spot. Plus the dogs are amped for the run. All this leads to Jimmy having snark potential. I manage it very closely in these scenarios.

    • We had similar back door issues in our last house. I would definitely consider remodeling if I had similar things happening in this house.

      And an interesting point about queuing up for the agility run. I have not witnessed snarky behavior there but it seems like a natural.

  7. I felt as if I was watching a video of my own household. My cats do that to Toby all the time. He won’t walk past them if they are blocking his way. I do make the cats move however, rather than have him walk by and get smacked. Also, the cats get theirs too, because Leah will smack them back from time to time if she sees them acting this way. (This is also why we lock them up when we go out, because I always worry she will take it to the next level).

  8. This is a really interesting post and will certainly keep an eye out for danger zones in future

  9. I’ll chime in from Silas’s perspective and say that a lot of these things are true about dogs interacting with strangers as well. Things I particularly watch for, after some experience: people wanting to get into the car next to us as we get out, meeting people on narrow trails/bridges, and people walking up narrow store aisles toward us. I also have to watch him at Mom’s house to make sure he doesn’t get trapped behind her kitchen island.

    I was really proud of my local mom-n-pop pet food store–last month they completely rearranged the front half of their store to eliminate narrow places where dogs might need to pass each other.

    • Very smart of your pet food store. I wonder if they had experienced problems.

      My vet’s reception area faces right out the front door, giving a very narrow passage for dogs coming in and out. They recently did some renovations and I hope they got rid of this issue. Luckily, Honey is so healthy we’ll have to wait until May for her check up.

  10. Really great observations and great information. I’ll be introducing my dog to my aunt’s dog around Christmas time and will definitely remember these tips.

    Like I said on Facebook, this is a daily occurrence in our house. Jameson, our evil cat, will often sit at the top of the stairs or in the space between the couches. Sometimes he’ll sit on the arm of the couch which has the same affect as sitting on the floor. This is probably Jameson’s least-bad behavior towards Bailey and if it was just this, life would be entirely less frustrating. Our other cat, Puppidawg (yes, puppy dog) doesn’t seem to care about torturing Bailey like this. If she’s in a transition area, it’s purely by chance. Bailey’s reaction is the same, even if Puppidawg is sleeping.

    I like to see how Bailey problem solves in this situation. She’ll often whine when Jameson is blocking the path between the couches. It takes her a few minutes, but then she realizes she can go around and come through the other entrance. Most of the time, I’ll move Jameson or get in between them so she can walk by comfortably.

    • Bailey is lucky you’re looking out for her. I bet the dogs in the video wished they had the same.

      BTW, I think I understand the name Puppidawg. It came after you had been drinking Bailey’s and Jameson, right? :)

      • LOL no, but that’s a fantastic excuse. Jameson was my husband’s cat before we met, so I had no say in that, but we rescued Puppidawg together. He thought it would be hilarious. I wasn’t a fan at first, but I was outvoted by all of the pet owners in the waiting room at our vet’s office. We tried for weeks to find a cat name for Bailey, but didn’t like any of them. So we went with booze instead.

  11. As always, really great post. I saw that video and, of course, laughed at first. But then I thought how scary life must be for those dogs… to be afraid of going past the cat, with your people egging you on. No fun. During therapy dog training with Em, they talked about that a lot because in many environments it’s common for patients to “circle up” for therapy sessions. The trainer emphasized that we needed to ask for a semi-circle every time so that our dogs felt they had an out if they got overwhelmed… and those were all exceptionally behaved dogs. It’s so true for Lucas that if he feels constrained or confined in some way, he reacts way more forcefully. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful take!

    • Interesting comment about forming a circle around a therapy dog. I’m not sure I would have thought of that as a danger zone at first.

      Can you imagine little Newt ever doing the same thing?

  12. Gambler had danger zones he had to watch out for when daddy Norman was alive. Daddy Norman attacked him when a wee pup so Gambler learned where and where not he could go.

  13. I have a question. What type of harness is Honey wearing and what is the purpose? Just curious.

    • It’s an Easy Walk front leading harness. It prevents pulling because it attaches in the front instead of on top.

      I no longer use it for walking Honey. Now that she’s older, she can walk on a loose leash. But we occasionally use the harness when we want a little more control. Like when we met our new foster dog today.

      • Karen Weston Varney says:

        Thank you ! My dog Roxy, is 5 and still pulls when I walk her. She did fine at obedience class and agility, and she walks good for my husband, but not for me. I’m sure that it’s operator error, lol.

  14. I agree with the first comment. My dog is blocked this way at least once a day by our cat – not to mention their early introduction to each other Shiva’s second day living with us – and I have learned to tell the difference between her usual whine and her whine that means the cat is being a jerkwad. As soon as I enter the room, the cat typically gives over, but I would never make my dog walk by him while he is in attack mode. Someone is bound to get hurt and it may not be my dog.

    In agility, at least in my agility classes, my trainer spent a lot of time talking about transition zones. Most agility dogs are highly driven and focused and tend to be on the reactive side as a result. They don’t like other dogs getting in their faces and I don’t blame them. The start/finish line can be a super stressful spot for many handlers. You have one team finishing up their end of course celebrations and collecting their leash/collar/reward and you have another entering the ring, removing their collar/leash and getting ready to start. If a disaster is going to happen, it’s going to be here. Not to mention, depending on the venue, you also have people lined up with their dogs waiting their turns as well as people who have already competed just watching, also with their dogs. It can be pretty sketchy for even the most placid of canines! A successful transition on and off the course is a key part of overall agility performance.

    • Until Taryn mentioned it, I never thought of the risks at the entrance to the agility ring. I understand how hyped up the dogs are. I’m starting to feel surprised there isn’t a blood bath at every competition.

  15. This video was disturbing on so many levels. Mostly for the stress that the dogs and cats were under and humans acting as if it were no big deal. The dogs and cats were being forced to disrespect each others spaces and territory. The cats were all put into threatening positions because a human wants the BIG dog to pass by the small cat. Clearly no one here seems to understand anything of animal behavior which it too bad because both the cats and dogs were put in bad positions and that means someone is going to get hurt.

    • Because I don’t live with cats, I didn’t understand the whole cat dynamics.

      But I certainly understood the human dynamics and I agree with you 100%. Knowing just a little bit about dogs has certainly ruined you tube for me.

  16. So very very true. BD is most stressed when he is on a leash and another dog is near him, that’s why if I see another dog approach I have a tough decision to make as to whether or not I should put BD on a lead or not. I like to have him close to hand in case anything does happen but then again he is happier when he is loose!

    • I try to compromise with Honey but keeping the leash very slack and relaxed and following her around in circles (you’ll notice that if both people circle around the dogs, they never get the leashes tangled).

      It allows the safety of having her on a leash while not adding to the tension. But it’s always the decision we have to make with our dogs every day.

  17. Leashes are a big danger zone for Delilah. When she is approached by another dog while she’s on leash I’m more apt to drop our leash. I would much rather drop the leash and then chase her through neighborhoods then set her up to be ‘labeled’ as a mean or aggressive dog. I know she doesn’t like greetings on leash, so I do my very best to avoid them.

    Great observations (as always!)

    • Very few people realize how challenging on-leash greetings are for dogs. But I sometimes worry that if I just drop Honey’s leash it will end up getting tangled and causing its own problems.

      I guess there’s no way to stop being a worry wart.

  18. I see these “danger zone” interactions all of the time on the trail. The space is so confined. Dogs that don’t know each other are forced to walk within inches of each other. It can cause dogs that are normally well behaved to act out. Interestingly enough, many people exclaim “He is normally a nice dog, I don’t know what his problem is today”. All of this is complicated with one or both of the dogs act inappropriately like staring or trying to stand higher than the other dog.

    • Many of our local trails are carved out of steep gorges with water on one side and sheer rock walls on the other. I’ve had the same experiences as you have on the trail.

      Our best bet is always to be aware of who is ahead of and behind us so we can “pull off” the trail into a wider area before passing. But more people need to practice their “passing” skills. It was one of the big things we worked on for Honey’s Canine Good Citizen test. And the hiking trails have made it a highly valued skill.

  19. Thank you for writing this, Pamela! I am right there with you (and many of your readers who have left comments). I always wonder if my profession makes me hypersensitive, and it’s a relief to find out that nope, I’m pretty normal in this regard! :)

    Just move the cat, people!

    Thanks again, I will send people to this post, it’s great!