Recently one of my apprentices moved to Australia. She will be there for a year. To say that she is a dog lover might be a huge understatement. They make her heart sing. Because they will be gone only a year, she left her much loved dog here in the States with friends and family to love and care for her while they are gone. This decision was, by far, the most difficult part of deciding to take a leap of faith for the opportunity to go to Australia for a year. Her dog is in great hands and is well-loved. It has left my friend heartsick for canine interaction. That’s where this article comes in.
This morning she was messaging me about how different dog culture is in Australia… at least the part where they are currently living. Dogs ignore one another, and strangers don’t force themselves on dogs either. People don’t solicit petting other people’s dogs. This is, of course, a huge difference in dog culture from the US and Canada where we put such an accent on our dogs being hyper-social… with unintentional consequences.
I have heard this is true of Europe as well, that dogs are well trained but aren’t asked to be social with every dog and person they meet. Rather the dogs are social with their families and friends (canine and human) and to ignore everyone else.
I prefer the less is more model. I don’t want to be hugged or touched by every human or dog I meet. I save those precious interactions for precious relationships. While it’s anthropomorphizing, I think just watching dogs in social situations bears out that it is often the same for dogs. I see, over and over, people soliciting the opportunity to pet a dog and while the dog clearly, politely, kindly says, “No thank you” the human persists and pets the dog anyway. Thank goodness most dogs are tolerant of these social gaffs.
As a trainer, I get complaints over and over on two separate issues that are connected. The first group is the “too exuberant greeter.” This is the dog who is jumping up, whining and crying, pulling to close the distance over greeting people/other dogs. The dog is over-stimulated and highly aroused. The second group is the dogs who are deemed “reactive and aggressive” when greeting other dogs and people. These groups are, to my way of thinking, different sides of the same coin. I will also say that I regularly see dogs go from group one to group two if they don’t get support. It’s predicable and sad. The roots of these issues start I believe, with this idea of socialization as a darn free for all.
When I am working with any family we are constantly talking about impulse control and self-control. We are talking about how to recognize when our dogs are amped up and when they are relaxed. I consistently talk to families about the rule of threes and greetings, whether greeting dogs or people.
So now let me be controversial. I don’t let every person pet my dogs or puppies. I don’t let every dog greet my dogs. Do I socialize my dogs and puppies?Absolutely, but I have found through experience that too much interaction causes far more harm than the intended good. I would not let just any dog or human touch my child. I don’t let them touch my dog either. It’s just too much, too invasive. That invasive interaction often leaves dogs with insufficient support to learn how to manage… so we get over the top interactions, positive and negative. Honestly, not every human or dog is safe.
The Rule of Threes:
One in three dogs or people your dog is to ignore. They should be aware but relaxed and focus on you instead.
One in three dogs or people your dog should quickly greet. This may or may not include touching.
One in three dogs or people your dog should enjoy a more social interaction, petting for example.
Focus on helping your dog be comfortable with the people and dogs who matter most. That list includes, typically, close friends, family, your veterinary staff, groomer, pet sitter, etc. It doesn’t mean random strangers. People and dogs are unpredictable. Make a list of who your dog needs to be comfortable with and focus on quality not quantity :). I still work on my dog being comfortable with everyone just not with everyone having unfettered access.
What I have found, focusing on this protocol is that my dogs are more comfortable and polite with new people. It’s easier to introduce the people they need to be comfortable with… maybe they view it as I have interviewed the new person or dog and they have my approval so the dog can relax.
Who do you think should be on your dog’s approved list? Which dogs should your dog be comfortable with? What qualifications do you have for which people or dogs get access to your dog? What kind of dog/dog play is okay with you? I think about how I was with my human kids. Did they talk to everyone? Did they get in everyone’s car or go to everyone’s home? What would be the upside or downside to slowing down interactions? Can you think of one? Let me know! I want to know your thoughts. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tina M. Spring
Tina M. Spring is the owner of Sit Happens Dog Training & Behavior, LLC in Athens, GA. She is the creator of the Hounds for the Holidays program to help prepare dogs for the stress of the holiday season and prevent dog bites. She is also the author of 90 Days to the Perfect Puppy which is available as an online course.