Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Greeting dogs

After reading my assertion that children should learn the appropriate way to approach a strange dog, Nathan commented: It seems strange to put the responsibility there. Why is it OK for us to have creatures around that are dangerous to children who have not memorized this bit of trivia?

It is an excellent question, which I’d like to break down into several questions.

What is the purpose of learning how to approach a strange dog?

It could certainly be beneficial to the human to learn how to approach a strange dog. However, I originally posted a link to the lovely How Not to Greet a Dog comic with the benefit of the dog in mind. I’d like to see more people be aware that their approach to a strange dog can be stressful to the dog. Luckily, most of the time, the dog’s stress at an impolite approach doesn’t have consequences for the human (no one gets bitten or even growled at). But it does have consequences for the dog, who might feel some measure of alarm.

A few days ago, a child visited my dog in my back yard. She put her arms around him and hugged him while making high pitched noises. Jack looked away from her in alarm and licked his nose three times in rapid succession to signal his discomfort. Because he did not growl at her, however, I’m guessing that she assumed he enjoyed the interaction. Doesn’t everyone like to be hugged?

I think Jack felt somewhat as you might if a stranger bodyslammed you on the street. (Remember, canines don’t hug the way we do. Patricia McConnell has made the excellent point that if a dog is pressing its stomach against another dog, it is probably mounting the other dog in a dominance display.) The girl had a good time, but I’m guessing that was mostly because she was assuming Jack was enjoying the hug. Hopefully she’d actually prefer for the dog to have a good time, too.

Whose responsibility is it to prevent dog bites?

OK, but some dogs do bite, and Nathan’s question remains: whose responsibility is it to make sure that that doesn’t happen? The child’s?

In my opinion, it is absolutely not the child’s responsibility to ensure their safety around a strange dog. It is the responsibility of the owner of the dog. If the dog cannot be trusted to put up with a hug, or a high pitched squeal, or a hand waved in its face, then the dog should not be around the child.

But this is the real world. Sometimes children approach dogs when the owner is looking the other way. Sometimes the owner is irresponsible and is letting an untrustworthy dog be around a child inadvisedly. And sometimes the owner thinks the dog is trustworthy, for very good reasons, but the dog is having an extremely stressful day and the child’s behavior is the last straw. You never know. I would say that Jack is “extremely unlikely” to bite, because I have never seen him growl at a child, or try to escape from the vicinity of a child, or even show stress behaviors around a child (until the child does something over the top like hug him — but as soon as she stopped, he relaxed again). But you never know. Any dog can bite. If I were a parent, I’d want my child to have some tools for dealing with a potentially dangerous situation, just in case.

Why should I learn how to politely approach a dog?

I think it would be a good thing for people to learn how to interact with dogs — to learn what is polite in the dog world. We have to learn what is polite in interacting with each other. (Don’t run up to total strangers on the street and hug them, even if they are extremely attractive!) Dogs have to learn what is polite in interacting with us. (Don’t leap up on humans and lick them in the face! ...Some of them don’t learn this, and most of us would agree that this is a real failing on the part of their owners.) So why shouldn’t we also learn how to greet a dog? It seems only fair.

If you don’t like dogs, and don’t intend to be greeting any, then it’s less worth it for you to learn this skill. However, in this case, learning a little canine body language can be helpful for keeping them away from you, too. I once saw a man in a park who encouraged every dog he met to jump on him by crouching down in front of them and raising his hands in front of his body. He meant to prevent them from jumping on him. He should have turned his shoulder to them and avoided eye contact.

A lot of people who don’t own dogs do like them and like to be able to greet strange ones on the street. A lot of young people are in this category, from what I can tell from my experiences walking dogs. Some dogs are social butterflies and don’t much care how you greet them (my old roommate’s dog Casey definitely falls into this category), but some are very sensitive. I think it makes sense for people to learn the polite way to greet a dog — both for the dog’s comfort and, very occasionally, for the human’s safety.

What can I do?

  • If you’re the parent of a school-age child, support your child’s school in providing education about how to interact with animals. It’s useful.

  • Of course, read that comic if you haven’t yet. It’s cute.

  • Patricia McConnell’s book The Other End of the Leash is a great resource if you’re curious about learning more about how to see the world from the dog’s perspective.

  • If you don’t want to read a book about this but have some specific questions about how to interact with dogs that you want answered, where can you go? It occurs to me that our society doesn’t really have a great solution to this sort of problem. Maybe the blogosphere can step up. I’d be happy to answer any questions people have — Translator for Dogs would be a fun job for me to have some day. Hopefully dog trainers who maintain blogs (and there are plenty of them out there) would enjoy answering specific questions, too.


  1. Kind of related, just curious what was going on.

    When I was a kid (like under age ten, over age five) I'd sometimes spend the evening at my grandmother's house. She had a poodle named Blackie who was a very well behaved dog. When my parents came to collect me it was usually late and I'd have fallen asleep on the bed in the guest room. My mom or dad would come in and carry me out to the car and then home.

    The weird part was that when they'd come into the guest room to get me, Blackie would be on the bed and he'd growl at my parents. He'd even nip at them apparently if they came too close. My grandma would have to call him away.

    Any ideas what he was thinking through there?

  2. Short answer: dunno.

    Long answer: There are various posibilities, I guess, and it's hard to get more information because you were so young. I do know that beds can be important places to dogs, and some behavior problems manifest there, with the dog wanting to control what it (correctly!) perceives as an important place where the highest-ranking household members like to rest. So it is possible that Blackie didn't want to let someone else control the bed. But it seems unlikely, because usually this sort of problem would manifest by the dog growling when someone tried to get on the bed, not when they tried to take someone off! Also, you remember Blackie as a good dog, and if he had this issue with the bed, I would expect him to have growled at someone else getting on the bed, some other guest. (Maybe he did and you never heard about it.)

    Maybe he was alarmed by two humans (your parents) coming into the room and looming over him as they scooped you up, but again, if he was that easily alarmed, I don't think you would remember that he was not a problem dog.

    The obvious answer is that he felt that since you were sleeping, you should be left alone, that he was protecting you. Who knows? It seems surprising that he'd have that sort of relationship with a child who didn't live with him, but dogs can have weird perceptions sometimes.

    Sorry I can't give a better answer! When I offered to try to translate I suspected things would come up that were perplexing. Maybe a real dog trainer could do better.

  3. So true! How about, parents need to tell their kids they need to *ask permission* before petting someone else's dog. It's logical--children are taught to ask permission before playing with someone else's toy, taking someone else's treat (what kid would think it's OK to lick someone else's ice cream cone without asking?), etc. It's not the child's dog, I think most kids would understand that, and at an age earlier than they would understand why they need to greet dogs a certain way. My experience is most parents aren't teaching that lesson, or at least the kids aren't learning it very well. I rescued and rehabilitated a shelter dog that was completely unsocialized to humans, and I can't tell you how often I had to run defense for her before she learned to accept being touched by strangers.

  4. I do see some kids ask permission, but yeah, it would be nice if a lot more of them did. I know it's really hard on owners of shy dogs to have to be so incredibly vigilant when out in public with their dogs, to make sure no one approaches their dog without asking first. And it is indeed a really easy lesson to teach!