Honor your dog's "dogness."Dogs, like humans, are social creatures. This is one of the reasons they make such great pets and companions. Domestication and breeding have cleaved our species together in ways that benefit us both, for better or worse. Our dogs want to be around us, and we want to be with them. And we are not shy in showing them so with touch, talk, and eye contact—sometimes in overpowering amounts.
Dogs enjoy being part of our family, and being close to us, yes, but they are also individuals who sometimes want time to themselves, despite what we might think. They seek us out for attention, but they also learn, when given the chance, that closeness can exist without affection being given 24/7.
Humans often misinterpret dog behavior in ways that, at best, confuse the dogs we love, and at worst drive them to send us messages we don’t tend to welcome. Because they are so forgiving and desiring of affiliation with us, our dogs continue to try to communicate with us in the only way they know how.
And often, we can’t see, don’t see, don’t want to see, don’t want to believe. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I have a simple message that can help you to interact with dogs much more effectively and safely. It costs you nothing, but may save you, or someone else, from being bitten. It will honor the dog's "dogness," too. You won’t like it, necessarily, and you may have a difficult time carrying it out. But it’s something that we humans owe to the dogs in our lives.
LEAVE THE DOG ALONE
Why do people seek out dogs as pets? There are lots of reasons, but in my experience I’ve found two reasons that transcend age, gender, class, financial status, and personality: we want a being that will love us unconditionally, and we want to be able to touch and stroke that being pretty much at will.
Luckily for both our species, dogs tend to enjoy touch and other forms of attention from us, but most humans don’t know when to stop—or why they need to! There is definitely such a thing as too much “love” when it comes to dogs.
Passive bonding when you are hanging out with your dog, touching, stroking, talking silly, kissing him, picking him up, or playing with him, you are bonding actively with him. In and of itself, active bonding is a good thing, and we both benefit. But both dogs and people also need the absence of active bonding, too. Passive bonding is often overlooked in our relationships with our dogs because we don’t realize that they need it. Passive bonding is “the space between the notes,” the closeness without touch, the proximity to each other without any requirements or need. Are you allowing passive bonding in your relationship? Your dog needs it, and so do you.
Leave the dog alone so that he can rest, sleep, settle, and learn that touch should be earned in some way—it’s not freely abundant. Leave the dog alone so that you develop some self-control around your dog. Just because your dog “doesn’t seem to mind” you constantly petting him, or even seems to want it 24/7 does not mean you must comply with his requests. Just because your dog is close enough to touch doesn't mean you have to do it so much.
Show your love to your dog by actually meeting his needs—not just yours.
LEAVE THE DOG HOME ALONE
Dogs don’t understand the concept of temporary separation until they’ve been taught, so every time you leave the house, the dog isn’t sure you will be back. There is no way to convince him that you will return except by always returning. So yes, dogs feel stress when we leave them, but we cannot ameliorate this stress by staying with them more. We must teach them how to deal with the stress of being left alone by actually leaving them a fair amount, and by not allowing our emotions to get the better of us. The best way to inoculate the puppy against separation anxiety is to leave and return, and to mix up departure and arrival times, length of time away, and actions that precede and follow an absence.
The dog needs to be left safely, of course, which may involve the use of a crate or other confinement. Don’t get all emotional about that part of it—dogs don’t generally perceive confinement like we do, and it helps greatly with structure. Crates satisfy an innate Instinct called the "Denning Instinct" which gives dogs a natural sense of safety.
You needn’t make a big deal out of your comings and goings, even though you think that’s necessary. Your dog will still love you just as much if you come in calmly, take him out calmly (or send him if he’s trained) to his potty area, and then engage with him calmly. All the high-pitched voices and exclamations are your attempt to meet your own needs, and they can confuse the dog. Keep things simple, and on a schedule as much as possible. The dog will adjust.
Many people tell me that their dog has “separation anxiety,” and usually, they are wrong. They themselves have separation anxiety. Sitting at a restaurant or movie theater and worrying about the healthy dog you left an hour ago is pointless, and likely not reciprocal—he’s probably napping by now.
Most dogs don’t have separation anxiety, but many do fall somewhere on a continuum of separation distress. Mitigate that stress by keeping your emotions in check, making your farewells and arrivals calm and consistent. (And if your dog really does have diagnosed Separation Anxiety, work with a professional, please!)
Make sure your dog is getting the proper amount of exercise, mental stimulation (including training), and having his primary needs met, and then go away. Don’t go away mad, just go away. After all, how can he appreciate you if you never go away?
LEAVE THE FAMILY DOG ALONE, KIDS
Dog bite statistics can be alarming when you first hear them: 4.7 million dog bites occur yearly according to the CDC, with over half of those occurring to children. Actual fatalities are rare (fewer than 100 per year), and many other things kill us with more regularity. But when dogs kill, it hits us right in the gut, doesn't it?
Everyone has heard news stories of children being mauled and even killed by dogs, often by dogs that are well-known to them. Most bites to children come from their own family dogs. Why is this? Often, it’s because the adults assume too much from both the dog and the child. The family dog should not have to endure children bothering him endlessly—even when they are "being kind" to him.
We know it’s wrong to hit, grab, tease and badger dogs--and responsible parents drum this into kids' heads constantly. But even when kids are taught to refrain from these actions, their attentions to the dog may still cross the line. It’s also wrong to allow your child, or any child, to ride your dog, lie on top of him, climb on him, move into his space quickly, grab toys or food from him, wake him from sleep, pet him endlessly, or pick him up when it’s not absolutely necessary. You might think it’s cute, and you might presume that the dog is OK with these behaviors because he hasn’t growled or bitten, or walked away.
But you’d likely be wrong. It’s to dogs’ credit that they tolerate a lot of crap from us, but not all dogs have the same amount of fuse. If pestered, badgered, climbed upon, picked up, laid upon, or grabbed enough, any dog can bite—even your beloved family pet. And when it happens, you don’t get to blame the dog. He was, in all likelihood, sending signal after signal and was thoroughly ignored.
In short, do not allow anyone—child or adult—to treat your dog in a manner you’d not allow towards another human. Know your dog, and protect him.
LEAVE THE PUBLIC DOG ALONE
Everyone knows dogs who “love the world,” and pert near everything in it. These canines seem to have a permanent grin on their faces, constantly wagging tails, and the perfect acceptance of any touch we seem inclined to bestow upon them. If you don’t own one of these dogs, you have friends or acquaintances who do, and you see people at the park, on the street, in every city who do. I like to call these guys Ambassadors, because they embody so many of the qualities we seek in our pets: friendliness, joy, laid-back acceptance regardless of our faults and flaws, a desire to avoid unnecessary conflict, and a joie de vivre that we covet but cannot ever seem to clear our thoughts enough to reach.
Luckily for us, most of the millions of dogs living in homes, riding in cars, and going for walks in the community are Ambassadors in full or in part. We trust them, and they trust us. We relax with them because we value what they embody, especially the desire to avoid conflict. People call them angels, heroes, furkids. They claim, "I didn't rescue my dog--he rescued me."
Just as people differ in our personalities, dogs come sometimes with personalities that aren’t as easy to accept. Not all dogs are ambassadors, and that’s actually perfectly fine. Dogs were bred to perform tasks, and sometimes the ambassador qualities don’t fit with those tasks (guarding, for instance). Some dogs do not want to interact with people they do not know, and this is their right. Whether it's because of genetics, personal temperament, a lack of socialization as a pup, or some other factor, the dog is simply how he is, and while training and proper socialization can help pretty much every dog on the planet fit more within our parameters as constituting a good pet, training cannot erase genetics. With dogs, it’s nature AND nurture, always.
The thing is, many humans assume that every dog they encounter is naturally an Ambassador, and this can be a big problem. Assumptions about dogs and their behavior gets us into trouble sometimes. You are not entitled to interact with every dog you meet in public, regardless of your desires. In public spaces, in friends’ homes, in situations where a dog or dogs happen to be, leave the dog alone by default.
Yes, of course there are situations where it is OK to pet or interact with dogs that do not belong to you. Always ask permission from both the owner, and the dog—and listen to the answers they both provide before touching. No matter what the owner says, if the dog says "no," do not touch.
How do dogs say "no"? Some people assume that if the dog isn't snarling or trying to bite them, he likes it. But dogs are appeasers, and may try lots of things before they get to this point. These include hiding behind the owner, blatantly avoiding you; ducking the head, pulling away from you, averting the eyes, tucking tail, or taking a submissive, low posture. If you stop, crouch down, and wait for the dog to enter your space, and he does not come into it, leave him alone.
NOTE to the owners/caretakers of Dogs Who Prefer to Be Ignored By Strangers: You have a responsibility to your dog to keep him safe. This includes not just actual, physical safety, but also his perception of safety. This means that even though *you* don't perceive the "nice" man who is trying to pet him as a threat, the dog might--and it's HIS perception of the situation, not yours, not the stranger's--that matters. I know you don't want to appear unkind to people, but your dog depends on you. If you allow, or worse, encourage touch from people when your dog is sending clear signals that he is not comfortable, you are throwing your dog under the proverbial bus. How can he trust you? And at what point does he proceed from hiding behind you to biting? This can be prevented. Listen to your dog.
Building your dog's confidence is essential, and part of your job. Allowing or encouraging unwanted touch does not build confidence--it erodes it. Contact a trainer who works with dogs like this and uses an inclusive approach (lots of tools in the toolbox, several ways to tackle the problem) to help you.
And stop worrying more about what strangers will think of you or your dog, and focus on helping your dog. No one is entitled to touch your dog. It's OK, and often better, to Just Say No, Smile and walk away.
Children Are the Most at Risk When Things Go South
Read the above section again and apply it to your kids. Most dog and child interactions are perfectly safe as long as a watchful adult is present. Teach your kids to Leave the Dog Alone when:
- The dog is unfamiliar to them
- The dog is loose or itself unsupervised
- The dog is sending signals that it wants to be left alone
- By default
If you teach children that their default behavior when they encounter a dog that meets the above criteria is to Leave the Dog Alone, they will be safer.
Yes, there are situations where children are allowed, maybe even encouraged, to interact with dogs that do not live with them. But these interactions should never be assumed, and must always be permitted by an adult who knows the dog. Never assume, even if the dog is displaying “friendliness,” because most people who are not canine professionals misinterpret signals of stress or excitement for friendliness.
Look, we love dogs, and they love us. Dogs are pretty adept at showing affection for us, and we think we are adept at showing them we love them--but often, we are wrong. We give them too much affection and not enough structure, in general. We want to meet their needs, but we often only meet our own needs and confuse ours with theirs. We can do better, and we must.
"Do you love your dog? Or do you love loving your dog? If it's the former, you will make sure to provide your dog with what he truly needs. If it is the latter, you will do what you want and then complain about him." ~Sarah Wilson