Ayella Grossman of Oracle Australian Shepherds and BauHound Haus in Milton, ON, is an accomplished breeder and trainer, who knows a lot about canine body language. I am pleased to share on my blog her thoughts about the hazardous ‘My Dog Is Friendly’-dogs and their owners.
My dog is Socially Retarded and Friendly!
It seems that dog trainers and responsible dog owners have reached the end of their leash. Recent articles, blog posts and responses from trainers all over North America are saying the same thing: keep your dog on a leash if you don’t have them under strong voice control! The reason is simple: an out of control dog rushing to a dog who is under control is a recipe for a disaster (notice how I removed the leash from that equation and it’s still true).
Many trainers get stuck with “the problem children”: the dogs that no one else wanted because of one issue or another. Some dog owners that got stuck with a problem child turn into really great trainers for their dog’s sake; and some dog owners with the best behaved dogs still take the time to learn all about proper dog behaviour and teach their sweet dogs how to properly greet a new person or a strange dog. Then there are the rest of the dog owners who have a wide range of dogs with various degrees of good or bad manners that do not take the time to learn about what is appropriate and what is not.
The biggest misconception is the old, “My dog is friendly! He just wants to say ‘Hi’! There are friendly dogs out there – ones that know how to approach another dog in an appropriate and well-mannered way. They, however, are usually NOT the ones whose owner is being dragged across the street by their bounding terrier who is pulling like he’s running the Iditarod, panting, choking, coughing and excitedly yipping as he runs directly at the other dog, while his owner screams out “It’s OKAY! He’s FRIENDLY!”
The other big misconception is that the dog who is about to be “greeted” by the “friendly” dog should be okay with this dog’s approach, and that he is a friendly dog, too. Actually a dog that understands proper dog greetings and manners would look at the “friendly” dog like he was a lunatic. A proper dog greeting is calm, polite and never direct. A proper greeting usually looks like the two dogs don’t particularly know each other and are trying to figure the other one out. If someone you didn’t know came running up to you screaming and yelling, then jumped on you and tried to lick the gum out of your mouth, what would you think of that person? Even if you are nice person who usually greets other nice people with a smile and a friendly “hello”, you are still going to turn your back and maybe yell at the person to leave you alone and stop doing that. You may even have some harsh words for them (and truth be told, I’d be swinging at them, too).
So are you considered not friendly for not happily jumping on the other person and licking them back? No! And if you decide to knock that person out, I don’t think anyone would call you aggressive.
Yes, some dogs are very tolerant and greet the dog, trying their best to ignore the inappropriate behaviours and some may even have learned the same inappropriate greeting and go straight into the panting, pulling and face licking routine, too. The problem is that this type of greeting does not exist in a dog’s natural behaviour repertoire. It is one that is learned early on leashes and reinforced by the dog being allowed to greet another dog that way. Usually the owner thinks the cute puppy at the end of the leash, excitedly pulling towards other dogs and people is adorable and doesn’t consider whether it is appropriate.
Some puppies get reprimanded early for that inappropriate overexcited behaviour by other dogs. The adult dog will growl, show teeth and then pin the puppy to the ground. Now to try to capture the ways in which dog socialization falls apart at this point in a single article is nearly impossible! Here is usually how this social interaction falls apart: the puppy owner screams and picks the puppy up looking for damage and signs of permanent mental scarring (won’t find them); the older dog who pinned the puppy is reprimanded by her owner and called aggressive and mean by the puppy owner. The puppy owner yells at the older dog’s owner that he shouldn’t have an aggressive dog out and about. Then the puppy owner rushes the puppy away and the older dog owner goes home and immediately looks up trainers (sadly many of whom will put a prong collar on the dog and yank him by the neck every time he so much as looks at another dog and therefore ends up creating a dog that is worried and stressed when dogs approach). The puppy spends the next several months at the end of a leash controlled by an owner who is now afraid to let the puppy meet other dogs and even worse, bigger dogs. She pulls the puppy away from almost every dog and the puppy grows up without learning those valuable lessons that the older dog was just trying to teach her. Those lessons are about how to appropriately greet another dog (does not include jumping on a new dog before they’ve had the chance to invite play).
So back to the situation of the “friendly” dog racing across the street, pulling his owner in the direction of the new dog as she yells “It’s OKAY! He’s FRIENDLY!”
If you have spent any time training your dog how to properly meet other dogs, if your dog is a truly well-mannered and friendly dog and if you care about their safety, this is what to do:
Step in front of your dog and yell back “My dog doesn’t want to meet your friendly, out of control dog – that’s not how I taught him to greet other dogs and I don’t want him to practice that behaviour with yours!” Trust me that will get them stop dead in their tracks in a cloud of dust, while their dog’s eyes bulge out of their head. Yes, you may get an evil eye from the owner and she may grumble something about your dog being “aggressive” or “not friendly” and that you are a grump (or other choice words). You, however, know that you have worked a long time to teach your dog about sitting nicely or walking beside you nicely while people and strange dogs approach. You know that your dog may have simply permitted that dog to act like an idiot and still greet them with the same respect they would another educated canine counterpart. However, you also know that out of control behaviour should not be rewarded by allowing the dog to meet yours – and the human’s ignorance should not be rewarded either by allowing them to think that it is okay.
The biggest misconception when it comes to this discussion is that only aggressive dogs would not want to be greeted in that way and only bad owners would allow their dog to tell another dog off for inappropriate behaviour. Actually, many dogs get called aggressive when really they are doing what is very natural to them: trying to teach the other dog that their behaviour is inappropriate and they don’t appreciate being treated with such rudeness and disrespect. Usually this “telling off” sounds and looks worse than it is – and another well socialized dog will read it as just that and back off. Not all dogs are going to like other dogs, just as you aren’t going to like every person you meet. That’s not that you are not friendly, we’re just different and have different ideas about what constitutes a good companion. Sometimes you want a running buddy, sometimes you want someone who you can talk to and other times you want someone who will just lay with you on the couch while you watch the world go by through the window. Humans have a very complex language with which we can communicate our approval or disapproval. We also have the choice about where we want to go. If you are looking for a running buddy, you’re going to go to the gym and if you want to sit around and talk, you’re going to call up your best girlfriends and gabber.
Dogs in our society don’t have a choice about where to go. They go where their owner takes them. However, dogs have a very complex communication system, too. Most of it is through body language and certain signals they give each other and most go unnoticed by humans unless they have taken the time to learn about it. With humans in the way, many dogs don’t learn that language fully and the language that means “I don’t want to” or “you’re bugging me” like growling, barking or even pinning the other dog, often gets reprimanded. But this is not aggression! This is a dog’s way of asking the other dog to leave them alone. Usually, the other dog takes the hint and goes away. Sometimes the other dog is daft and doesn’t take the hint and keeps on bugging your dog. Your dog’s signals that they are not happy will become more and more intense until the dog “get’s it” or ideally, until you, their owner step in and remove them from the situation (if the owner of the other dog does not do it first – as the other dog clearly needs to learn something themselves). We take a dog into a situation, so we have to be aware enough to step in and remove the dog from that situation, too, if they are uncomfortable.
Think of it like this, you take your child to the park. Your child is a nerd and you know it, they spend countless hours at home playing by themselves or with you. They like to learn new things and are real keeners in school, but you take them to the park and they prefer to watch the sand fall through their fingers rather than play with the other kids. Most of the other kids, don’t fuss with your child. One or two comes over quietly and they both watch the sand fall between their fingers for a while without making eye contact until one walks away. Then a group of rowdy kids comes into the park. Your child looks over at them and grimaces. He turns his back to the park entrance as they come into the park, but you are too busy watching the new rowdy group to notice you child’s comfort level drop and him get nervous and worried. He plays a bit longer in the sand box, then when the rowdy kids start to make their way to the sand box, he tries to make a run for the swing. The rowdy kids spot him and run over to him and cut him off.
“Hey, don’t you want to play!?” They ask him.
“No.” He quietly turns his head and looks down at the ground.
“But we’re going to play ball!” One kid says and then looks back at his mom who is gabbing away on her cell phone, not paying attention. He runs over to his mom and shoves her and she tosses the ball to him without so much as making eye contact. “See, here’s the ball! Come on let’s play!”
You sit and watch for a few more seconds, while the boys try to get your son to play, while your son gets increasingly more uncomfortable.
Okay, so here is where bullying would start and possibly the child that just wants to play by himself would start yelling back and maybe even kick sand at the rowdy kids – and then a fight would ensue.
Or you are a responsible parent and you know your child well. You go over and ask him if he’s ready to leave and shoot the rowdy kids your best “I’m going to tell your mother” look. Your son huddles up close to you, while the kids yell “momma’s boy”. You keep walking and then take your son to the Science Centre where he plays with the gadgets and even meets another quiet boy like himself. You exchange numbers with the other quiet kid’s mom and the two become best friends, because they enjoy the same things and they both have the same quiet play style.
Did I lose you on the dog park analogy or are you still with me? Not every dog wants to run in the park and even if they do, they may not want to play wrestle with the neighbourhood’s rowdy boxers. If they stand up for themselves and say “No!” to the other dogs, are they aggressive? No. However, if your dog is not happy with particular dogs at the park, remove them from the park until the other dog leaves. I’ve seen a couple times everyone leave the park when a particular dog enters the park, so sometimes you won’t be alone. Some dogs are just plain rude and their owners are too ignorant to know it is their dog that is being the instigator.
A friend recently had her dog at the dog park, she was playing well with all the dogs until one rowdy kid came into the park. He went from dog to dog to dog, breaking all the dog etiquette rules, while the owner let him. Finally, my friend knew her dog well enough to take her dog out of the park and wait for him to leave. As she took her out, the rowdy dog got closer and her dog started to bark to tell him to leave her alone. The rowdy dog’s owner ignorantly said something to the affect of “Oh, your dog is aggressive!” (instantly making my friend’s blood boil). Of course, now her dog who had been happily playing with the other dogs at the park before this dog arrived was pegged as aggressive. “Actually, no, I just think our dogs don’t see eye to eye,” she shot back at him. She patiently waited while the dog terrorized the rest of the dog park, then left. She then took her dog back in and her dog continued to play with the rest of the park goers happily.
You will notice that nowhere in this article did I mention an aggressive dog. I did however talk about certain dog language that can look like aggression to people who do not know better. Dog language that can come from a perfectly friendly and well-mannered dog who regularly greets other friendly and well-mannered dogs with a polite dog greeting. A friendly and well-mannered dog who, when greeted by an out of control dog that does not understand how to properly greet another dog, may wish to tell that dog that they are being rude.
So this is why dog trainers all over North America are saying “Get that dog under control!” It’s not because we are mean or stuck up – or we just have all the problem children. It’s because we know what is appropriate in dog language and if your dog doesn’t know that and you don’t know that, then it has to be said. A good dog, a friendly dog, a well-mannered dog is perfectly within their realm of allowable behaviours if they decide that they don’t appreciate being approached by a strange dog in a rude way and they want to tell that dog so. However the same dog that doesn’t know how to appropriately approach another dog is likely to be the same dog that would misunderstand a simple “back-off” growl as a “I’m gonna kill you” growl and instantly become aggressive with the dog that just wanted to be left alone.
Dog trainers work hard at teaching dogs how to use appropriate social skills within the parameters of leashes, parks and other man-made social confinements. So when dog owners allow their dogs to inappropriately rush to the other dog – regardless of who is on or off-leash – dog trainers always tense up. Maybe both dogs will be fine and maybe no one will get hurt, but we’ve seen good dogs get the blame for out-of-control dogs’ rude behaviour too many times and it’s about time that we speak up! Too many good dogs have gone bad, because they get pegged for being aggressive or mean when really they are good dogs trying desperately to deal with a world full of people who let their dogs behave badly.
If you own a dog, learn what is an appropriate greeting, learn about dog body language and calming signals. Do not let your dog practice bad greetings and if you own a good, well-behaved dog learn their subtle cues that they are uncomfortable and get them out of that situation immediately. Recognize a rude dog approaching and don’t let your dog greet them, even if you think your dog will tolerate it – because all you are doing is telling the other owners that allowing their dog to behave like this is okay. Show the other owner how a good dog can sit and wait while crazy-at-the-end-of-the-leash dog gets dragged past, not getting any reward for bad behaviour. Let them feel like they have missed a step in being a responsible dog owner, not you.
Finally, it’s never too late to change. If you find yourself at the end of the leash of a dog who does not have good doggie manners and rudely charges at other dogs, take the time to teach them what is appropriate through hard work, training and careful socialization with dogs that will teach them how to act like a dog. Lastly, get your dog under control. Whether on-leash or off-leash and approaching another on-leash or off-leash dog, rude behaviour is rude behaviour. Regardless of if the dog your dog is approaching is friendly or not and regardless of if they are on-leash or not, if your dog is approaching at speeds that make it impossible for you to stop him, with a leash or with your voice, chances are he’s being rude and should not be allowed to do so.