The scariest moment on TV this year wasn’t in a horror show or movie - it was on Saturday Night Live.
During an SNL episode that aired November 17, 2018, a Great Dane was featured in a short skit about a couple living in an RV. When the dog came on set she was met with a chorus of “awwww” from the audience, while I cringed on my couch at home.
Now I’m not here to critique the show or the sketch, nor have I contacted anyone to find out anything about the dog, the handler, or whether this dog will be or has been on any other show. It’s clear that the actors were uncomfortable with the dog, and the dog was uncomfortable with the situation. My goal here is simply to analyze the behavior that was displayed and to point out how close we came to witnessing a bite incident on live TV. One, no doubt, that could have caused serious damage.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are approximately 4.5 million reported dog bites in the United States each year. How many of us have received a bite and didn’t report it? We can safely assume that number should be at least doubled. I believe that we can lower that number by educating the public on pre-bite body language and factors that can increase the risk.
So what about “Lady Gray,” the dog in this particular sketch? Why was her behavior so terrifying? Let’s break it down...
The Behaviors - Before we even see the dog, there’s a bark and growl; but to be fair, this could just have been a sound effect. Lady Gray appears to hesitate upon entering the close quarters of this set, surrounded by lights, cameras, and a lot of people. I first noticed her eyes; they’re wide, tense and she’s showing the whites of her eyes (known as “whale eye”). This is a clear sign of stress. She gives several “hard stares” throughout the segment, which is a threat or warning. She’s trying to avoid contact with the actors while showing other stress signals – she licks her lips many times, her body is tense, her tail is tucked and she’s almost frantically looking around (hypervigilance). Another signal that often goes unnoticed is the pucker this dog is doing with her muzzle/lips, especially when she first appears on set. An “aggressive pucker” is when a dog pushes their lips forward in an offensive manner. It’s often accompanied by growling and a hard stare. It’s also a really good indication that a dog is prepared to bite. A typical pre-bite sequence is freeze > whale eye > hard stare > growl > pucker > show teeth > bite.
The Analysis - Now that we’ve objectively observed the behavior, let’s look at what it means. Lady Gray is conflicted. She’s unsure whether this is a safe situation for her, and she was clearly very stressed throughout. She did calm down quite a bit over the two minutes on stage and appeared to be more at ease. The actors did the best they could to get through the scene while also backing off the dog a bit, although we do see Heidi Gardner put her face right in Lady Gray’s face and look directly at her eyes with a big smile, aka with her teeth bared. Yikes!
The Conclusion - This is a really good dog. She deserves a lot of credit for showing excellent impulse control. Remember, as stress and anxiety increases, inhibition and impulse control goes down. Lady Gray could not control how she felt in this situation, but she did have a choice – to bite or not to bite? And she made the right choice. If you see a dog behaving this way, remove them from the situation and allow them an escape. Never force a dog to confront something that is scary to them. And the next time you’re faced with similar circumstances, work on counterconditioning and desensitization to help the dog feel more comfortable.