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  • Writer's pictureRobin Pitoscia

Hands (and noses) To Yourself, Please

Small (French Bulldog) and large (Great Dane) dogs meet each other.

Humans are, by and large, a pretty social species. We generally enjoy the company of others, and ultimately require it for our well-being. It is only natural that because many of us share our lives with dogs, that we assume that our furry friends must have the same wants and needs. We want friends. We want other people to like us. Why wouldn't our dogs want the same?

In reality, socializing with other "strange" dogs (dogs who are not a member of the household/pack) is not a natural behavior for many of our canine companions. Yes, some dogs genuinely enjoy meeting and greeting everyone and everything upon this Earth, but for most dogs this isn't something they need, let alone enjoy.

When you take your dog out into public, it is your duty to respect the feelings of your dog, as well as those of the other people and animals you might encounter. To put this concept into perspective, consider the following:

Imagine you are sitting in your doctor's waiting room. Maybe you aren't feeling well. You may be feeling anxious. All you want to do is get this appointment over with and go home so you can change into pajama pants and watch Netflix. Suddenly, a complete stranger sits right next to you. They plop down, put an arm around you, pull you in for a hug and ask you why you're there. Why are you seeing the doctor? Do you like skittles? Would you like to play scrabble right now? Why not? Don't you know how to spell? Hey, is that gum in your purse? Give me a piece!

That would probably make you pretty uncomfortable. The same is true for your dog. And while we as people might have the composure and social skills to exit a situation like that delicately, we cannot reasonable expect our dogs (who are animals, after-all) to do the same. At best, we end up with a dog who feels uncomfortable pressure and submits/shuts down. At worst we end up with a fight.

We are our dogs' advocates. We need to speak up for their well-being. Additionally we must remember that not all people enjoy dogs, or dogs of a particular size, shape, or breed. To be responsible community members we must keep our dogs under control and respect those around us (human and canine).

If your dog isn't comfortable being approached by strange dogs, use these techniques to advocate for him/her:

  • Keep your dog on leash at all times. Your dog should be no more than 4-6 feet away from you at any time you are outside of your own home or yard, unless he/she has an excellent recall. Flexi/retractable leashes should be kept in the locked position any time another person or animal has the potential to be nearby.

  • Learn canine body language, especially stress signals. Dogs may display the following behaviors when they feel uncomfortable (usually, dogs will display more than one of these behaviors as a stress response): ears laying back against the head, tail tucked between back legs, stiff body posture, cowering/trying to appear smaller, whale eye (showing the whites of the eyes), yawning, licking lips, whining, shaking/shivering, showing the belly, urinating, defecating, drooling, vomiting, hiding behind or under people or objects, attempting to retreat/run away, baring teeth, growling, barking, snapping, biting.

  • Body block. Put yourself between your dog and the other dog. You may need to create extra space by extending your legs, placing objects like a purse or backpack between you/your dog and the other dog, or walking out toward the other dog.

  • Speak up. Inform the owner/handler of the other dog that your dog needs more space and to please recall/remove their dog. Do not be pressured into allowing an interaction when you know your dog won't enjoy it. People often want to reassure others that their dog is friendly, which it very well may be, but this does not negate the fact that the interaction is making your dog uncomfortable.

  • Remove yourself and your dog from the situation/area if the other party won't respect your space. If you are waiting for a service (such as a vet or grooming appointment) inform staff that your dog is feeling uncomfortable and that you will wait outside or in your car.

If you have a dog that wants to approach others, whether they are friendly or otherwise, you must be aware that this is not always appropriate. For safety, you should always practice the following:

  • Keep your dog on leash at all times. Your dog should be no more than 4-6 feet away from you at any time you are outside of your own home or yard, unless he/she has an excellent recall. Flexi/retractable leashes should be kept in the locked position any time another person or animal has the potential to be nearby.

  • Ask the person, parent, or the owner/handler of any other dogs if your dog can approach. Respect their answer and follow it. Do not allow your dog to approach, give strong eye contact, bark or otherwise engage another person or dog without permission.

  • Learn canine body language, and be prepared to remove your dog if they are being too pushy (See the common stress responses above and note them in both your dog and any dog they interact with) or if they are displaying the following behaviors associated with showing dominance/aggression: stiff body posture, tail held high and stiff or slowly wagging, holding their head or body above another dog, mounting/humping, baring teeth, growling, snapping, biting.

Always remember, your dog trusts you to keep them safe and to show them what is acceptable. If you are unwilling or unable to do this then your dog might feel that he/she needs to take that responsibility on themselves. Be aware that the way dogs will try to solve problems (usually through levels of threats/aggression) is not always acceptable in human society. You owe it to your dog to be an advocate.

Robin Pitoscia is the owner of Diva Dog Grooming LLC, located in Duluth, MN. She has been a professional dog groomer for 15 years, working in a number of grooming salons across the Midwest. In addition to grooming dogs, she also breeds and exhibits Chinese Cresteds in a variety of AKC dog shows and sports. She is a strong advocate for building respectful relationships between humans and dogs through positive reinforcement and an understanding of canine cognition and behavior.

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