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He Just Wants To Say "Hi!"

Aggression or appropriate response to rudeness? Far too many dogs suffer because handlers & trainers don't know the difference between the two.

By Suzanne Clothier

Sitting quietly on the mall bench beside my husband, I was minding my own business when the man approached. I glanced up as the man sat next to me. He was a bit close for my comfort, so I edged a little closer to my husband who, busy reading a book, ignored me. Still feeling a bit uncomfortable with the strange man so close, I then turned my head slightly away from him, politely indicating I was not interested in any interaction. To my horror, the man leaned over me and began licking my neck while rudely groping me.

When I screamed and pushed him away, my trouble really began. My husband angrily threw me to the ground, yelling at me "Why did you do that? He was only trying to be friendly and say hi! What a touchy bitch you are! You're going to have to learn to behave better in public."

People all around us stared and shook their heads sadly. I heard a few murmuring that they thought my husband should do something about my behavior; some even mentioned that he shouldn't have such a violent woman out in public until I'd been trained better. As my husband dragged me to the car, I noticed that the man who had groped me had gone a bit further down the mall and was doing the same thing to other women.

This is a silly scenario, isn't it? First, anyone who knows me knows that I would never be in a mall except under considerable duress. More seriously, no rational human being would consider my response to the man's rudeness as inappropriate or vicious. By invading my personal space, the man crossed the lines of decent, civilized behavior; my response would be considered quite justified.

That my husband might punish me for responding to such rudeness by screaming and pushing the offender away is perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of this scenario. If he were to act in this way, there would be no doubt in the minds of even the most casual observers that his ego was of far greater importance than my safety or comfort, and that he was sorely lacking even rudimentary empathy for how I might be feeling in this situation.

Fortunately for me, this scenario is completely imaginary. Unfortunately for many dogs, it is a very real scenario that is repeated far too often. Inevitably, as the owners who have allowed their dogs to act rudely retreat from the situation, there are comments made about "that aggressive dog" (meaning the dog whose space had been invaded) and the classic comment, usually said in hurt tones, "He only wanted to say hi!"

Years ago, a friend of mine in Texas placed a Greyhound with a supposedly knowledgeable person in the Northeast. This person gives seminars all over the world on the care and training of a certain animal, so my friend felt comfortable placing this wonderful hound with her. Less than one week later, my friend received an hysterical call in which the supposed expert was threatening to have this Greyhound put to sleep for being aggressive. Since I was the closest resource, my Texan friend asked me to see what I could do, making it clear that this was one of the best Greyhounds that she had ever rescued - he had demonstrated incredible tolerance for all other dogs and animals.

When I spoke with the new owner, I asked what was going on. Her response was sadly classic: "Well, Champ is quite aggressive. For example, he'll just be laying on the dog bed and my two Goldens come over to say 'hi' and then he just attacks them. It's awful!"

My first tip off that the Greyhound was totally blameless was her comment that the Goldens were just coming over to say "hi." Generally speaking, dogs who live together don't walk over to each other to repeatedly say hello, no more than every time you walk in a room you walk over to a family member and say hello by getting right into their face.

Further questioning revealed that the body posture of the two Goldens while saying "hi" was very upright, ears forward, tails up and wagging very slowly - a confrontational stance, not a greeting. The Greyhound would often initially turn his head away, but when the two Goldens began sniffing at him and poking him, he would growl softly. Then, as they persisted, the hound would finally leap up with a roar. Despite her hysterical descriptions of the "fights," I was able to get her to define the amount of damage done by the Greyhound - none.

As we talked on, the picture came in more clearly: the two Goldens were quite spoiled, pushy with other dogs, and decidedly not happy with this new dog in their household. The woman cheerfully admitted that the two Goldens were not too well trained and that she sometimes had trouble controlling them around other animals, but "they were so sweet, and there isn't an aggressive bone in their bodies!" she told me.

The Greyhound, on the other hand, she viewed as a fierce, aggressive and dangerous animal who she now had muzzled at all times. I thought for a bit about trying to educate this woman about dog behavior, but decided the kindest thing to do for this hound was to just go and rescue him. So I did, and by the time I'd driven home with this incredible dog, he'd been renamed Beckett and he stayed with me for almost two years until I placed him with a friend who adores him. As for his "aggression," I never saw a hint of it in any situation.

While there are many frustrating aspects of being a dog trainer, one of the most disturbing scenarios is the situation where a dog is acting appropriately but nonetheless is punished (in the name of "training") by humans who do not understand what constitutes normal canine behavior and responses.

Sadly, normal behavior is quickly labelled "problem" behavior, and the dog is now a "problem dog." Depending on the skill and awareness of the trainer or instructor, the dog may be merely puzzled or irritated by well meaning attempts to desensitize or re-condition the behavior or actually punished quite severely using any number of horrific and senseless techniques.

In Beckett's case, a lack of understanding nearly cost him his life. Had I not intervened, his extremely uninformed owner would have had him put to sleep as aggressive. In most cases, the true problem - the rude dog and rude owner who allowed his dog to be rude - is not even noticed or addressed.

It never fails to amaze me how willing humans are to excuse and rationalize a dog's rude behavior instead of teaching them good manners. Part of developing appropriate social behavior is learning that no matter how excited you may be, there are other folks in the world and certain basic rules of politeness still apply no matter how excited you may be.

During an off-lead play session at our camp, two adolescent dogs began to roughhouse at top speed, resulting in one of them crashing hard into an older dog who'd been minding his own business. With a loud roar, he chased the offender for a few steps to make his point: "Watch where the heck you're going!"

A few minutes later, with the game still going strong, we watched as that same youngster found himself headed once again on a collision course with the older dog. It seemed another crash and altercation were inevitable. To the surprise of many who were watching, the youngster used all of his skills to avoid the crash, neatly swerving past the older dog who made no comment. The puppy had learned that no matter how excited he might be by the game, he still had an obligation to be polite.

We would look with a raised eyebrow at a mother who allowed a child to simply carom around a room bouncing off people and did nothing to calm the child, and who told those her child had shoved and pushed that, "He's just over excited." Just as parents bear some responsibility for their children's actions, dog owners have a responsibility to help their puppies act in an appropriate way - not to excuse rudeness.

Sometimes, this requires that we not allow a young dog (or a dog of any age) to escalate to such a high level of excitement and arousal. As a rule of thumb, the more excited and emotional a dog becomes, the less capable they are of thinking clearly and acting appropriately. (This is also true of all other animals, including people.) Wise handlers know that when emotions are running high, a cool down period is a good choice to avoid problems. Sometimes, helping a young dog learn what is appropriate requires the assistance of a normal, well socialized dog who can make his or her point without leaving anything but a clear message imprinted upon the puppy.

Normal dogs, like normal people, are often incredibly tolerant of the antics of youngsters. The tolerance level is highly individual and dependent upon the dog's experience with puppies. Dogs without much experience with puppies may not be nearly as tolerant as dogs who have seen a lot of puppies come and go.

Tolerance levels are also highly dependent upon the youngster's age; there are different expectations for what constitutes appropriate behavior at any given age. What we might find acceptable behavior in a 3 year old child would be frowned upon in an 8 year old. Dogs also have a timetable in their heads - puppies under 16 weeks of age can usually take appalling liberties with an adult dog. As Dunbar notes, there appears to be a "puppy license" of sorts, possession of which entitles you to be an utter pest without much repercussion. Past the age of 4 months, the "puppy license" expires as hormone levels shift and psychological changes occur. At this point, adult dogs begin to gradually insist on more controlled, respectful interactions from youngsters.

No matter what the breed, no matter how much genetic manipulation may have muted or inhibited certain behaviors, a dog is a dog is a dog. And the basics of dog-to-dog communications remain the same: a growl means back off in any breed's language, a tail held high and stiffly is a warning, rolling over on your back is an apology, etc.

Like people, dogs have varying thresholds for what I call the "fool factor." Consider yourself in this situation: you are walking down the street, and a group of loud, noisy teenagers - busy at the center of their own world - bumps into you and knocks you down. Do you smile at them? Do you mutter, "Watch where you're going!" as you brush yourself off? Do you get quite vocal in expressing your displeasure?

All depends on your tolerance threshold. It also depends on your mood, your health, the various stresses at work in your life, etc. Imagine that you had just won the lottery moments before they bumped into you. Chances are pretty good you'd be far more tolerant than if you'd just come from a meeting with the IRS. What if you'd been mugged a year earlier by a similar group of young hooligans? Chances are good that you might view this group as potentially dangerous, again altering your possible response to their rudeness.

Our dogs are no different. Each dog - no matter what the breed - has his own tolerance threshold, and that threshold is variable as a result of many factors, including basic breed characteristics

From the dog's point of view, there is the very real possibility that such rudeness could become an actual attack - it has in the past. Health problems can also affect a dog's tolerance level. A dog who is in pain (whether just muscle sore from hard work or play, or from a disease such as hip dysplasia or the creeping onset of arthritis) will have far less tolerance than he might when he's feeling fine.

We cannot expect our dogs to be saints but we can expect our dogs to be tolerant to the degree that we educate them, socialize them and protect them - with respect to their individual needs and boundaries.

If there was a dog with a very short fuse and a very low "fool factor" threshold, I'd feel obligated to help her find coping skills to lengthen that fuse - if only to lower the stress in her life. Fuse lengthening is especially important if you are going to ask the dog to cope with the situations that typically arise in class and dog event settings. But where I find "short fuses," I usually find other contributing factors. So, I'd take a very hard look at the relationship between dog and handler (particularly in the areas of leadership and boundaries), the dog's degree of self control and socialization with other dogs.

To my way of thinking, a critical part of the relationships I have with my animals is this promise: "I will protect you." And to the best of my abilities, I do not violate this promise in any way.

A few years ago, I was invited to be part of a fund-raising dog walk. I had chosen my oldest bitch, Vali, to accompany me. As we waited, hundreds of dogs and handlers assembled in the park. Many of the dogs were quite excited. Some dogs were only under borderline control. Vali laid quietly at my side, watching it all with great tolerance.

One particular dog caught my eye - a huge yellow Labrador who was dragging a small child behind him as he plowed through the crowd. I watched as this dog marked not only every tree or bush he passed, but also several pants legs of unsuspecting people. More aware handlers quietly gathered up their dogs and moved out of Mr. Rude's path, thus avoiding potential altercations.

As he moved closer to us, I saw Vali's head turn toward him and become quite still. Her eyes began to harden as she assessed - quite accurately - just how rude a dog this was. I could see her contemplating possible responses should the Lab be so rude as to invade her space (which in such public settings is perhaps 2-3 feet from her body). The only intervention necessary was to gently touch her on the head and say, "Yes. I see him. And you're right - he is rude. I'll handle it." Then I stepped slightly in front of her so that if he approached, he would have to first come through me. Immediately, Vali relaxed and went back to watching the crowd in general though she did keep an eye on Mr. Rude. Fortunately for us, Mr. Rude veered off to hassle another dog and the moment passed.

There were other ways I could have responded. I could have seen Vali's very appropriate response as potential aggression, and told her harshly, "Leave it!" To my way of thinking, that does not acknowledge or respect her feelings; it merely demonstrates my own fears about losing control of my dog's behavior.

I could have ignored the subtle signs that she had some concerns about Mr. Rude, and waited until he invaded her space then punished her for defending herself against rudeness. To my way of thinking, that would violate my promise to protect those I love, and then add insult to injury by punishing her for protecting herself. Keeping that promise to my dogs means that I am obligated to watch for any sign that they are beginning to feel concerned about a situation, and to act quickly to eliminate or minimize their concerns.

I encourage handlers to be quite active in protecting their dog - whether that means quietly walking away to a safer area, or, when that's not possible, literally stepping in physically to present the first line of defence. Stepping in between two dogs is a classic act of leadership. Dogs do it with other dogs all the time, so this same gesture coming from a human leader is understood and appreciated.

"But how do I stop dogs from being rude?"    There is no easy answer to that question. Certainly, no matter how aware or dedicated a handler, it is not possible to stop other dogs from being rude - or, more to the point, it is not possible to educate all other handlers so that they won't allow their dogs to be rude. I believe fools and rudeness are widespread, and to the best of my knowledge, there's no concerted government program to eradicate either rudeness or foolishness


Here's my advice for dealing with the "fool factor."

1. Socialize your dog thoroughly with other dogs; for puppies, choose playmates of a similar age and adults who have been well socialized themselves. This means off-lead socialization, not sniffing noses at the end of the lead. The more experience a dog has with other dogs, the more refined his judgment will become about what constitutes rude or foolish behavior and how best to deal with it. He'll also learn how to be a polite dog himself.

If a dog has not or cannot be well socialized, be realistic about what you can expect from him in his dealings with other dogs. This may mean altering your training or competition goals to be fair to a dog who may not be able to cope with the stresses of these situations.

2. When socializing your dog under someone else's instruction or guidance, be careful. Some instructors and trainers are appalling ignorant about basic behavior, and unable to set up a positive socialization situation. If you feel uncomfortable with a situation, remove your dog. It only takes a few seconds for a bad experience to leave a lasting impression, particularly on a young dog.

Just turning dogs loose together to play is not socialization. There has to be supervision, and intervention when the potential for a problem appears. The instructor must pay attention to each individual dog as well as the pairings or subsets within the whole play group. If one dog is getting overly excited, it's time to gently capture him, take him out of the play group and calm him down before letting him play again. If a fearful dog has reached his limit, it's time to remove him from the group and give him time to relax and build his courage before putting him back in. If a particular dog or dogs begins to gang up on another dog, time to break up the brat pack.

3. Watch your dog. Your dog will tell you all you need to know about his perception of the world. When you're with him, really be with him. Pay attention to his behavior.
Position yourself and/or the dog so that the dog is always in your peripheral vision. Practice checking on your dog often. If he appears to be concerned, find out why. And then help him. Protect him.

Teach yourself to recognize the small, subtle signs that he's shifted out of a perfectly relaxed state of mind. These may be as simple as the tilt of an ear, a raised eyebrow, a slight holding of the breath or tensing of the muscles. Each dog is different - learn to read your own dog.

If you can't watch your dog in a situation where there are potential problems, put him somewhere safe. I've seen far too many incidents occur unnecessarily because a handler was engrossed in a conversation or fascinated by what was happening in the ring and ignoring the dog at their side.

4. Be pro-active in protecting your dog. If you see a fool and his rude dog headed your way, do your best to protect your dog. If possible, walk away, lightly and quietly asking your dog to come with you. Be sure you are breathing and relaxed - don't let your apprehension about a possible altercation impact negatively on your dog.

If you can't walk away, try to get the fool to stop. Position yourself between the fool and your dog. If necessary, loudly & firmly tell the approaching person that your dog is not good with other dogs.

In close quarters where there really aren't any options for moving away, shield your dog with your own body. (Remember, stepping between dogs is an act of protective leadership.)

If you need to, sharply tell the fool to "please control your rude dog." You'll probably get a dirty look (fools rarely believe they or their dogs are rude and are shocked when spoken to sharply) but chances are good they'll at least make a show at controlling their dog or move huffily away from you.

DOs & DON'Ts

DON'T bring an intolerant or undersocialized dog to a puppy kindergarten or other concentrations of rudeness & stupidity when you know he can't handle puppies, stupidity, or rudeness!
DON'T put your dog in a situation you or he are not prepared to handle.
DON'T turn a rude puppy or dog loose with an intolerant adult.
DON'T expect your dog to like every dog he meets (at least until you like every person you meet.)
DON'T allow your dog to become overexcited or rude - help him find a more appropriate behavior or remove him briefly from the triggering situation
DON'T allow other people to allow their dogs to be rude to your dog.
DON'T ignore your dog or what your dog tells you about his feelings.
DON'T punish a dog for telling another dog to get the hell out of his face.
DON'T punish an adult for reminding a puppy to mind his manners.
DON'T let your training or competition goals overwhelm your good sense - always be fair to your dog.

DO respect the fact that your dog has a need for & a right to his personal space.
DO socialize your dog so that he's wise in the ways of other dogs.
DO accept the inexplicable disliking that your dog may have for another dog.
DO build your dog's tolerance levels through repeated, positive experiences.
DO continually educate yourself regarding normal and appropriate canine behavior in any given situation.
DO plan ahead to how you will handle difficult situations, people or dogs.
DO earn your dog's trust by keeping your promise to protect him.
DO pay attention to your dog when you are with him.
DO insist that your dog behave politely.
DO respect that your dog's individual needs may or may not be in line with your training or competition goals.
DO put your dog first - all your hopes, dreams, titles & goals all mean nothing if you ignore the needs, fears and realities of who your dog is.
DO honor & respect your dog's concerns, whether or not you share them. (Remember how your mom left the light in the hall on at night when you were a kid? It probably wasn't because she was afraid of the dark.)


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