The more I work with dogs and other dog professionals who tip-toe a thin behavioral line on a daily basis, the more appreciation I have for dogs and their artful communication style. Learning to read “dog” is like learning a foreign language. It takes years of being immersed in “dog” and speaking with hundreds of dogs to become fluent.
No reason to be intimidated though. Learning how to be polite is pretty simple (Excusez-moi?). Reading “For the Love of a Dog” or “The Other End of the Leash” by Patricia McConnell is a great place to start. Here are some other tips to get you started on your journey into the world of “dog”.
Think “What would a human do?”, then do the opposite. Human-to-human communication is pretty much on the other end of the behavioral spectrum of what is polite for dogs. For dogs, eye contact is rude. Approaching the front of an animal is rude. Touching the head or face is rude. Vocalizing while approaching is rude. Leaning, leering, or reaching out is rude. Us humans however greet by verbally acknowledge each other in a loud exuberant voice while making eye contact, then directly approach the front of the person, ending in a firm hand shake while maintaining eye contact. That is pretty much a nightmare of a greeting for a dog. Butt sniffing, however, is very polite.
Biting is part of “dog”. Thankfully, among the millions of people and countless dogs bitten every year, only a tiny percentage of those bites result in any real damage. We hear horror stories on the news but those instances are extremely rare. This is because most dogs have acquired bite inhibition, meaning they know how to bite and fight without doing any real damage. “Bite” is part of a dog’s language. We should respect this and thank them for using restraint in the many awkward, uncomfortable, and confusing situations human society brings.
Dog behavior is complicated. Oh how us trainers and behaviorist bemoan the so often repeated “if the dog’s tail is wagging it’s friendly” advice. Here is a video of terriers hunting a rat. The little terrier in the middle’s tail wags enthusiastically the whole time but would you call his intentions towards the rat “friendly”?. I would say not. **Viewer discretion advised http://youtu.be/WJIHFKT44Lc There is a lot more going on here than just a tail wag. This dog is targeting, hard staring the spot where he thinks the rat may be, freezing, and his weight is on this front indicating he is ready to jump into the action. In this case the tail wag simply means the dog is very excited… about getting the chance to kill a rat.
So what’s a dog owner to do? Get to know your dog. How our dogs react to to others will tell us a lot. Then, before you hit the dog park or playgroup, read Tips for Safe Dog Interactions. Lastly, take a deep breath and relax. For most well-rounded dogs, one or two bad interactions at the dog park or with a less than dog-savvy human visitor will be forgotten with a few treat-heavy training sessions.