Most of the anxiety and appeasement that occurs at a dog park or open space is of the human variety. Recently I’ve been musing about how we humans are often surprised and disappointed when our dogs don’t like other dogs. There are probably a few reasons why we react the way we do. Embarrassment is the first explanation that comes to mind.
Generally, when a dog doesn’t “like” another dog it is communicated by growls or snaps, occasionally by pinning or biting too. There can be harsh social consequences for owners of dogs who dare to vocalize or otherwise act like dogs in public. Butt sniffing? Yuk! And Dog forbid humping! Such things make us owners a bit squirmy and overly-apologetic, not to mention overbearing busybodies in our dogs’ social lives.
People don’t like to see their dogs bullied by other dogs, even though most of the time it’s not actual bullying, just clear, normal dog/dog communication that we interpret as bullying from our human vantage point with our conditioned social conduct rules.
Bullying and even simple rambunctious behavior make people uneasy and sometimes even reactive. When two dogs have a healthy “discussion” and generally work it out themselves quite quickly and painlessly, with no hard feelings, the human counterparts often end up exchanging harsh words and insults. So naturally people try to avoid the embarrassment of their dogs having “started it.”
And it’s not just dog/dog interactions either. There is another reason why people tend to get upset when dogs don’t “like” other dogs or otherwise react in a normal doggy way: Dogs communicating anything but utter happiness is forbidden by our human standards. We expect them to be joyous, benevolent creatures at all times! AT ALL TIMES! If they don’t always act like happy fools they are labeled bad dogs, or “red zone” dogs, or dominant dogs, etc… At which point we give ourselves license to punish them for not living up to our unattainable expectations of Zen-like calm and tolerance.
The truth is, some dog behaviors that we don’t approve of or can’t bear to witness are completely within the realm of normal, are often necessary, and are not dangerous at all. Quite the contrary, these behaviors often help to keep the peace or provide a therapeutic energy outlet.
Our insistence that all dogs play nice, never growl, never guard, etc. is as unrealistic as it is risky. Dogs forced to get along or punished for expressing displeasure or discomfort often become pressure cookers of unexpressed emotions that come bursting out at some point.
The best way to avoid this problem and do all dogs a favor is to take the time to observe and seek out information on dog behavior and body language, and then learn to tolerate it (within reason) – or to learn about how dogs learn and counter-condition new emotions and responses in them. While we’re at it, it doesn’t hurt to take a deeper look at how we humans contribute to the problem when we interact with dogs from our primate perspective.
So please do your best to let your dog be a dog and appreciate him for his unique and fascinating doggy nature. After all, isn’t that why you chose to live with him in the first place?