Some 25 years ago, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas published her book, “The Hidden Life of Dogs.” In it, she posed the question: What do dogs want, when left to their own devices and not constrained by human beings? And she answered that question, “They want each other.”
Reading Thomas’s book made me itch with anxiety, since her studies for the book consisted of following a friend’s unconfined, unleashed, unaccompanied dog around the town of Cambridge, MA for a number of weeks. If you, like me, live in an urban environment, you’re probably not okay with just opening the door and the gate to the yard and telling your dogs to be back whenever.
However, the answer she proposed, that dogs always seek the company of other dogs, somehow found its way into our popular collective consciousness, and whether or not they know why they think it, a lot of pet owners now believe that their dogs want to meet other dogs, say hi to other dogs, hang out with other dogs, and play with other dogs. At every chance they get. All the time. (They stop short of thinking, apparently, that all dogs want to LIVE with other dogs, because quite a few of those owners aren’t going to put up with the inconvenience to themselves of having a multiple-dog household. But they sure will hand you and me the inconvenience of turning their rude dog loose to bother ours! However, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Deep breath.)
For this reason, we now have ‘doggie day-care’ and dog parks and pack walks and any number of dog-oriented social venues that did not exist in the early 1990s or any time before that. Dogs want to be with other dogs, we aver. And as someone who has had from four to seven dogs at all times in my household for the past 20 years, I agree that they do – for the most part, most of the time, and for most dogs. But do they want to come face-to-face with every other dog who happens to be in the immediate neighborhood? Now there, I think the answer is – not so much.
One of my dogs, Dee (the Sheltie/SharPei mix, as I like to call her), recently certified as an Animal Assisted Therapy dog for a Chicago-based AAT group that sends its teams of dogs and their handlers into schools, hospitals, and other venues where the dogs can interact with people in the context of education or comfort. I got Dee into this program a year ago, because the training was near our home and because I thought it would be good for Dee, who almost certainly met some pretty rotten human beings in the first couple of years of her life before coming to me, to have positive experiences with people. I didn’t do it to have Dee meet any other dogs; she knows plenty of dogs. She is the boss of my three Busy Boyz and she also shares the house with my Poor Things (senior rescue dogs who are in a retirement home here).
Dee isn’t much on other dogs in general, although I’m sure she would like many of them if she met them in unstressful settings. She loves Alex, my Lapphund, and does her approximation of play with him. He’s her social outlet, from what I can tell. When she first arrived in my house, in September 2014, she was hugely reactive to all dogs she saw on the street or in yards when we went for walks. She would bark and sometimes lunge and was clearly very nervous. Two years of attending Manners classes at Canis Sapiens in Hyde Park, with Alex, helped her leave that reactivity on the shelf most of the time and not resort to it as default behavior.
But no behavior disappears completely and permanently – a trainer I know says ‘if something happens once, you must think that it will happen again’ in dog behavior – and Dee still does not like being approached or stared at by dogs she doesn’t know, and if that approach or stare happens, she will meet it with a very hard stare of her own, and a very snarky, angry bark. I think she’s probably snapped at a dog or two, but she’s never made contact; trust me, she does not want to mix it up with any dog. She wants them to back the hell off and leave her alone. This is an understandable posture from a dog that weighs 24 pounds.
So, in short: Dee will ignore Dog X if Dog X will ignore her. If Dog X fails to ignore her, Dee goes into her ‘Bring it! Come on, bring it, I’ll rip your face off!’ tirade to that dog. She actually has no face-ripping ability in her, I’d have spotted it by now.
In the AAT training sessions, we learned the greeting protocol that all the AAT teams perform at the outset of every AT session. It’s the AKC CGC ‘Reaction to Another Dog’ exercise by another name:
Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries, and continue on for about 10 feet. The dogs should show no more than casual interest in each other. Neither dog should go to the other dog or its handler.
Dee’s done that exercise many, many times in Manners class and she’s done it during AAT sessions, too. Unfortunately, she’s been lunged at during the ‘greeting’ by several AAT dogs – all of whom were much larger than she is – and I’m wary of doing it now unless it’s properly staged by an AAT group leader. But more on that later.
This morning I took the Boyz and Dee to the fields by the Ag High School: several city blocks of open fields, some of which is a Prairie Grass Restoration Project and some of which is mowed grass that abuts the school’s football practice area. Neighborhood residents use the fields, at certain times of the day, as an off-leash exercise area for their dogs. People are good about picking up dog waste, and I’ve never seen any altercations among dogs (or people!) in the fields. This morning the Boyz were not on leash; Dee was on her long line, hunting mice in the grass. About twenty yards from us, a couple with a Golden Retriever was on another walking path. Alex and the Golden spotted each other, and decided they needed to check each other out. I watched as they did:
After the initial spotting by both dogs, Alex bounded in the direction of the Golden, with his ‘I’m big!’ Lappie leaps; but his launch angle was about 20 degrees off the ‘target’ of the other dog. He wasn’t going directly at the Golden.
The Golden responded by trotting towards Alex, with lots of tail-swishes, and both dogs stopped every few seconds and each looked in the direction of the other dog, then resumed the posturing.
When the distance between them had closed, they were not face to face. They were about two feet apart and were sideways to each other. They paused here for a moment. Alex then was permitted a butt-sniff by the Golden (I don’t know if the Golden was a male or female). After that, they ran around each other in a small circle. Then the Golden flung itself down into the grass and rolled around for a few seconds. It sprang to its feet and the two dogs ran a short distance together in the long grass.
After that, they stopped, each glanced back at its human beings, and Alex turned and trotted back to me and the Golden returned to its people.
That was a successful dog/dog meeting, pretty textbook. My other dogs didn’t involve themselves; they had no interest, and Alex never signaled that he needed his dog compadres for any reason. I’m sure Alex and the Golden made eye contact at some point, but never were they nose-to-nose or head-to-head. There was no growling. No hackles were raised. There was no backing away defensively. Their movements were loose and expressive and happy, in the warm morning air.
Contrast that with what Dee experienced recently, and an outdoor AAT event at a church in a nearby suburb:
Unlike the fields at the Ag school, the location for the AAT event was not a place Dee had ever been before. It was a double lot, about 150 feet by 100 feet, next to the church hosting the event. There were 40 or 50 people there when we arrived, including many small children: lots of activity. We stood and watched, on the sidelines.
After a few minutes, a woman and a dog approached us. Both wore the vests of the AAT organization. The dog, a Wheaten Terrier, was young and energetic, and was well out in front of his owner, on his leash. The protocol for the AAT ‘greeting’ is that each dog be in heel position at the side of its handler, and preferably with its attention on its handler. The Wheaten hadn’t gotten the memo, obviously. He headed straight for Dee, looking at her instead of his handler. When he was about five feet from Dee, I moved to insert myself between the two dogs; at the same time, Dee decided the dog represented a threat, and she gave him a snark-bark warning him away. She had been sitting next to me, but as the Wheaten neared, she stood, and her body posture was stiff. Her tail was not wagging, and not relaxed. Her stare was hard and her lip started to curl.
Does that sound like fun for Dee? Does it sound like she wanted to meet that dog? Like she wanted to ‘say hi’ to him? Oh, I guarantee that what she said wasn’t ‘hi.’ How could the owner of the Wheaten fail to see that the dog she was closing in on with her dog was exhibiting NO signs of relaxation and friendliness? (Let’s not even ask how the owner of the Wheaten could allow her dog to use its leash as a tow line and direct HER course with it. Good grief!)
I know, I know – the owner of the Wheaten was clueless. It’s a common condition, unfortunately, and even having done the training required by this AAT organization didn’t help remedy it for this person. It later turned out that she thought there was something wrong with Dee, that she hadn’t been comfortable with the ‘friendly’ approach of her dog. I’m currently in discussions with the AAT group regarding whether or not Dee and I want to continue in their program.
(The ironic note to this was that the dogs and handlers were there to bring a message to kids about the safe way to approach and greet a dog. Ask first: ask the handler if you can say hi to the dog. Put out your closed fist for the dog to sniff. If the dog accepts you, pet the dog but not on its head, pet the flanks or maybe the neck. Never go face-to-face with the dog. Never put your head or face near the dog’s face. Good precepts! Do they apply only to children? I think not.)
In the past ten years, there has been SO MUCH information put out in so many outlets – social media, training websites, training classes, veterinary clinics, grooming and daycare centers – about dog/dog interaction and the dos and don’t of that for the owners, that I really think it takes an effort to be unaware of the basics, which the owner of the Wheaten clearly was. Dog body language? Nope, she’d say, I got nothing. But she knew, by gosh, that all dogs want to say hi to other dogs, yes they do! And because her dog is probably an affectionate and friendly dog in the context of his household and daily life, she absolutely did not see what he looked like to my dog – oncoming high-beam headlights in her windshield, causing her to panic and try to pull over on the road, so to speak. That’s clueless, for sure.
The Yellow Ribbon Project, started by DINOS (Dogs In Need Of Space), has been great in getting the message out through graphics like this one:
The thing is, almost *every* dog is a DINOS. Reactivity is not a trait that is confined to just some dogs, based on their experiences in life or even their genetic inheritance; reactivity is the response of a dog to a perceived threat when the dog feels it can’t evade that threat! We really need to not put pressure on our dogs as much as we do, demanding that they behave ‘nicely’ in the face of things they see as posing an existential threat to their well-being. No, your dog should not meet every other dog it encounters; and if your dog is the one pulling you over to the other dog, while my dog is the one resisting the meeting, that does NOT mean you have a ‘friendly’ dog. It means you have a rude dog who quite possibly is anxious and unsure of itself and cannot exercise self-control in moments of high emotional intensity. That’s friendliness? Sheesh, with friends like that …
Some people think their dogs aren’t reactive to any degree; that their dogs are what they call ‘bomb-proof.’ I think those dogs just have a longer fuse and give fewer warning signs before they lose it — but they do lose it. My BC, Rowley, is ‘bomb-proof’ and will tolerate behavior from other dogs that would have Alex or Dee absolutely screeching with outrage. And yet Rowley’s the dog of mine who has gone bitey-face on another dog when that dog got up in his grille and didn’t back off. He was fine, fine, fine, fine — and then he wasn’t. No dog can be pushed past their limit. Knowing what the limit is, and seeing that it’s not reached, is the job of the dog’s owner.
Dee probably had a hard time as a puppy. She has behavioral mannerisms now that make me think she was out of the litter too early; either because she was taken away from her mother, or because her mother was not available. It is what it is. She’s an awesome, smart, sweet dog, and her issues are entirely manageable. Alex, in contrast, had a very stable puppyhood, with an environment about as good as it gets for a dog. I guarantee he never had to fight for food. His mama was with him all the way, and his littermates and household dogs were congenial and welcoming to him. And yet, he is no more a fan of the ‘INCOMING, BOMBS AWAY!’ approach by another dog than Dee is. Is Dee reactive, but not Alex? No, they both will react negatively to behavior by another dog that is perceived to be threatening or an imposition of personal space. I just call the behavior rude.
We live in a society that tolerates more rudeness than ever before. It feels like this is part of that general trend: people seeing only what their dog wants to do and not seeing the effect it has on another dog or even people who are nearby. I can do two things: I can protect my dogs from the rude behavior of other dogs; and I can call their owners on it. I do both and I’ll continue to do both. Whether Dee and I will continue to do AAT work with this outfit remains to be seen. But all my dogs agree that they certainly do enjoy the company of other dogs … in the proper setting and context.