For the most part we demand everyone be social. Which makes sense. Historically speaking, for both people and dogs, those who can cooperate best survive the best. In fact, the origins of our human-dog bond are rooted in the idea that our ancestors and our dogs ancestors found a way to work together. But can we go to far?
From puppy-hood we are encouraged as good pet parents to make sure our pets are properly socialized. We want them to be comfortable and social with strangers and strange dogs. And if they are not we are led to feel like we have somehow failed. There are a lot of reasons for anti-social behavior, pain, fear, and aggression just to name a few. Yukon grew up friendly and social with dogs and people alike. In fact he served as the mascot for every public appearance when Furever Friends was based in Tucson. But with age Yukon has developed some medical problems that make him shake. A half a dozen doctors and at least as many treatment plans have left him mostly pain-free but fearful around other dogs. He still plays with his house mate but even a smaller strange dog causes him to bristle and grumble. As much as I would love to see him frolic and play in the local dog park I respect his preference to be left alone. And I always appreciate when other dog owners ask before approaching and give him space when I say “he’s not great with other dogs.” Since moving to Colorado I have crossed paths with so many responsible owners who took my subtle cue of shortening the leash and bringing him to the outside of the path, and followed suit. With every dog who passes us calmly on the trail he becomes more confident and relaxed.
Just a couple weeks ago while out jogging with the dogs I encountered someone who gave me the creeps to put it nicely. The guy was riding a bike and swerved around to gush about how pretty my dogs were. The guy admitted he was drunk and being creepy but kept asking questions about the dogs. I changed my course to immediately head back toward home but my friendly demeanor had me politely entertaining the conversation even though the attention made me uncomfortable. I kept jogging and the guy started to pace me, trying to continue a conversation, which just made me that much more uneasy. When he asked if the dogs were friendly as he reached to pet them, Yukon’s reaction finally shook me out of my polite zone. Yukon pinned his ears back and fluffed up a bit. Apparently my lack of self-preservation was trumped by my need to protect my pup. “NO, THEY’RE NOT FRIENDLY. Have a good day.” I announced firmly. In truth my dogs love people. “But they seem nice” the guy pushed. “Yeah well, they’re not. Have a good one.” Pushing my tone just a bit harsher. Finally, the guy went on about his life and I finished my run wondering about the crime statistics in my area. Fortunately, the encounter ended without a significant incident. It leaves me wondering if I had been less polite to begin with maybe I could have avoided the uncomfortable encounter. Dogs don’t feel bad about expressing when a situation makes them uncomfortable and we shouldn’t expect them to.
Most important is to respect the space of a dog who seems uncomfortable. Today, my usual jogging path is extra narrow with snow piled up along the sides. When another dog-owner approached from the opposite direction I stopped and asked Swota & Yukon to sit so that I was between them and the dog. As they got closer, his dog crossed the path toward us with a dominant posture. I looked straight at him and said “they’re not friendly.” And yet he kept coming, with the leash long enough to put his dog right on top of us. So I said again “They’re really not friendly!” and he just stood there blocking the trail and looked at me. To avoid a problem I had to step back off the trail, knee deep in snow in my running shoes and leggings. And the other dog barked and lounged! Seriously?! I couldn’t believe it. Not only was this guy not respecting my warning but his dog was acting aggressively. These kinds of encounters only set back all the hard work we’ve put in to get Yukon comfortable passing other dogs on the trail. If you are out in public with your dogs be mindful of other dogs & how their owners handle them. If you see someone bringing their dog close in on a short leash or move the dog to the opposite side, its a safe bet they need a little space. And, unless your in a designated free-for-all area like a dog park, its always a good idea to ask before letting your pet approach someone.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting everyone be a jerk or that you shouldn’t try to socialize your puppies. Life is certainly easier and more fun for dogs who are well socialized. They can go to festivals, doggie daycare, and meetups. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t make pet owners feel bad if their furry ones don’t play well with others. And maybe, just maybe we should take a cue from our dogs and be less polite when our inner voice screams ‘Danger!’