She’s not friendly!” calls a woman, referring to her white miniature poodle. I am walking in their direction with Penny, the well-behaved pug I’m caring for while her person is out of town. With one big pull, the woman forces her poodle’s leash backwards. Her totally silent dog looks up in bewilderment, first at me, then at the woman, who proceeds to tell him in an uncomfortable tone to mind his own business. Penny, thankfully, didn’t seem to take this too personally.
I meet lots of people with dogs who, as they put it, “don’t like other dogs.” Perhaps their dogs bark when another pup comes into view, or drag on the leash in an attempt to get up close and personal with fellow canines. Or, as in this case, don’t really do anything at all.
What these people don’t realize is that they are the ones encouraging antisocial behavior. Their dogs never get a chance to mingle, since other furry friends are strictly off limits.
When a dog is not socialized, he can exhibit signs of aggression (barking, lunging, growling, baring teeth), fear (trembling, tail between the legs), or desperation for canine interaction (jumping up on other dogs, whining, dragging the owner at the other end of the leash). As a result, what happens? The poor pooch ends up with the notorious label: “Doesn’t like other dogs.” And the vicious cycle continues. No socialization equals poor behavior equals no doggie play dates. And on it goes.
Zoey is a Shih Tzu who lives across the street from one of my clients. She was very happy-go-lucky when I first met her one on one, but when I had a dog with me, she seemed terrified. Concerned about her fear, her person scooped Zoey up in her arms, speaking in soothing tones and telling her everything was okay.
The problem is, there was no danger to shield Zoey from. The dog I was with was completely nonaggressive, and just as small as she was. Nevertheless, Zoey was receiving affection from her person while she was scared, so this negative behavior was being reinforced. Zoey felt there must be something to be afraid of even when there wasn’t.
Careful not to offend the nurturing doggie “mom”, I gently explained she was doing the opposite of what I was sure her intention was – to give Zoey confidence in the presence of other dogs. We began a weekly regimen of walking Zoey with my toy poodle, Fluffernutter. At first, Zoey was somewhat resistant, and would stay a minimum of three feet away from Fluffernutter at all times. I ignored her apprehension, and simply gave her the freedom to be as close to or far from Fluffernutter as she wished. I wanted her to come to the conclusion, all on her own, that there was nothing to fear.
By only our second walk, Zoey began showing signs of curiosity towards Fluffernutter. By the third walk, they became pals. Zoey’s person reported she was becoming more interactive with other dogs as well. Our walks still continue — and Zoey races down the stairs whenever Fluffernutter and I enter her home. Only now, it’s to run towards Fluffernutter, not away from him.
When I was first introduced to Ruby, a beautiful Chow mix, I was told not to let her near other dogs, as “she doesn’t get along with them.” But her cheerful, sweet demeanor didn’t seem to match up with that warning. My first few times with Ruby, I carefully observed her reaction when she saw other dogs from a distance. The only thing I noticed was lots of excitement. Many times, an overly enthusiastic dog can be confused with an aggressive one, since the behaviors are similar (e.g., barking, rushing/charging).
Since Ruby is a strong dog, I first made sure I’d be able to handle her should she get out of control. But that turned out to be a non-issue. It appeared that Ruby’s actions, which had been mistaken for hostile behavior, were actually caused by her lack of dog interaction. Because of this misunderstanding between Ruby and her person, she was not allowed to make any new canine acquaintances, and as a result, her frustration grew.
Ruby’s tail wagged happily as I slowly and carefully allowed her to approach other dogs during our walks. She never made direct eye contact with them — a classic sign that she meant no harm. I gave her praise and affection after her dog interaction, to reward her calm, gentle behavior. Think of it as the child who has no friends, and then makes lots of them. He gains confidence! He feels accepted and included. For a dog, this confidence translates into a more balanced, contented canine who has no fear of strange dogs. In fact, he will look forward to meeting new dogs, since his recent experiences with fellow Fidos have been positive ones. And I’ve never met a dog who had too many friends!
DO’S AND DON’TS
DON’T put your dog under “house arrest” by not walking him because you are worried how he will react to other dogs. An unwalked dog is a frustrated dog, and frustration will only intensify existing behavioral issues, and can even create new ones.
DON’T feel anxious or worried about situations that haven’t actually arisen while walking your dog. If you do, your dog will pick up on your negative energy and mirror it. Predicting a bad outcome is bound to bring one.
DO remember the three C’s: stay calm, cool and confident, just as you’d like your dog to be. In nature, wild dogs communicate with other animals via energy; it is a very, very powerful tool.
DO keep an eye on your dog’s body language, and do the same with the dog he is approaching or being approached by. For instance, a tail between the legs may show fear, but that doesn’t mean you have to cross the street.
DO keep a safe distance from the other dog, yet still allow them to interact with one another. This lets you maintain sufficient control should you need to pull back the leash.
DO become alert to a rigid tail that sticks straight out from the body. This is usually a sign of aggression or dominance. Of course, a wagging tail is known as the symbol of canine friendship.
DON’T hesitate to consider help from a professional animal behavior expert if socializing remains an issue even after several attempts to correct the situation, or if the problem is too severe to handle yourself. Ask for references.