It’s a fact of life that not everyone gets along with everyone else. Humans measure our own civility by our ability to coexist, using what we call “manners.” We shouldn’t be surprised that our dogs have a similar code of conduct that they adhere to when interacting with other dogs. But do we really understand or even recognize dog manners when we see them?
Like humans, dogs are social animals and a normal, healthy dog will require regular social interaction to be well adjusted and happy. We share a need for companionship and play with our dogs. As humans, we are raised to learn and use a number of social cues and etiquette to help us communicate and understand each other’s intentions and emotions. Given our different physiology and thought processes, teaching dogs how to interact with other dogs using human etiquette seems silly.
Show Me, Don’t Tell Me
Dogs don’t have the human capacity for complex language. They do, however, have an amazingly complex and effective set of visual signals they use to communicate with each other. Veterinarian Bonnie Beaver describes three types of communication dogs use with each other in her book Canine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians.
When interacting with other dogs, my Tiramisu might display Distance-Reducing Signals in order to encourage another dog to come closer and interact, perhaps to play. She might display Distance-Increasing Signals in order to get another dog to back off and give her space or leave her alone. Or she might display Ambivalent Signals, a mixture of both Distance-Reducing and Distance-Increasing signals because she is uncertain about a given situation.
Most of us are familiar with the the most common Distance-Reducing Signals: the lowered head with open and relaxed mouth, the play bow with rear end high and tail wagging excitedly, pawing playfully at the air. We should also be familiar with the most common Distance-Increasing Signals: the fixed stare that says “don’t come any closer”, the “frozen” body posture, closed tight mouth, lowered ears and weight rocked forward on the front paws. You might be surprised at the speed at which dogs can both read and display such signals. Entire “conversations” between dogs can happen in a matter of one or two seconds, almost beyond the ability of the average person to follow.
Meeting and Greeting
Remember, dogs are a scavenger species — so meeting another dog while out foraging in the wild could be a dicey proposition. After all, that other dog could be a competitor for your next meal. Humans usually approach each other head on, making eye contact and often extending a hand in friendship. Dogs generally approach each other cautiously and indirectly, averting their gaze and avoiding prolonged eye contact to reduce any threat or challenge. Dogs also want to sniff each other because so much of a dog’s world is made up of smells. And the best smells seem to come from up close.
This is where all that visual communication plays its part. In order to get a good sniff, you have to get pretty close to that other dog. But that other dog may indeed be a competitor for some resource (e.g., food, toys, etc.). So dogs will use their body signals to communicate their intentions and preferences.
Often these interactions are difficult for humans to see because we don’t recognize the subtlety in canine signals. In a matter of seconds dogs can seem to become instant play buddies or mortal enemies before we even know it.
One of the most fascinating aspects of dog communication for me is how dogs settle disagreements. We have had some pretty dynamic “personalities” in our Belgian Shepherds and they have given us a wealth of experience watching their interactions.
Vince and Mario had a difficult relationship. Vince didn’t much like Mario and Mario adored Vince. As you can imagine, that dynamic led to more than its share of disagreements between the two dogs. Mario liked to gaze adoringly at Vince. It was a soft look, not a hard challenging stare. But this annoyed Vince and he would let Mario know.
In Vince’s case, it began with an averted gaze and a low rumble in the back of his throat. If Mario didn’t back off, it would escalate to a growl, then a lowered head and a bark, then a snarl with bared teeth. On a few occasions, it escalated to what we would call a “fight” but what is, in reality, just another way dogs communicate.
Dogs can look pretty ferocious if they get into fights with other dogs. It’s remarkable how infrequently these “fights” actually result in real injury to either dog. One of the biggest surprises for me in learning about dogs is that this lack of injury is not an accident.
I remember attending a seminar put on by author and dog trainer Suzanne Clothier. During one session Clothier showed a video of two German Shepherds “fighting”, and it was difficult to watch. The two dogs reared up and clashed, snarling and snapping at each other with fearsome speed. Although it seemed to go on for some time, it was over in a couple of minutes. Clothier then showed us the same video at half speed and pointed out a couple of impressive facts.
First, she explained that most dogs can bite three to seven times per second! That’s faster than any human could react fast enough to intervene. But the second and more astonishing fact was that these two dogs were missing each other ON PURPOSE! Suddenly what looked like an all-out brawl turned into a high speed dance, well choreographed and executed with precision.
In her web site article “He just wants to say Hi!”, Clothier explains that dogs do have a sense of personal space and they sometimes do take exception to having that space invaded without invitation. Apparently dogs can be rude to each other just as humans can. But dogs don’t have the ability to say, “Excuse me, would you mind backing off a bit there pal?” Instead they growl, bark, snap, or lunge out. In other words, they present some pretty overt Distance-Increasing Signals.
So why do we expect all dogs to be delighted to see each other? I can’t tell you how often I’ve encountered an off-leash dog barreling down on me and my dog at the park. In the distance, the owner waves and yells, “He’s friendly!” to which I usually reply, “Mine isn’t!”
I say this not because my dog is unfriendly but because I think it’s unfair to expect my dog to remain calm with a strange dog running at her full speed and, being on a leash with me, having no way to escape. I think you or I would be defensive in such a situation too.
Given how much of dog-to-dog interaction is misunderstood by humans, the kindest thing we can do for our dogs is to minimize the chances of them getting in trouble by managing their situations. My girl Tiramisu can be very reactive when dogs invade her personal space without permission. All of the snapping and snarling is not designed to inflict damage on the other dog, it’s meant to get them to back off.
Don’t Punish Good Communication
Dogs are very good at letting each other know what’s on their minds. An unwanted encounter can be handled with a grumble, a growl, a stare, a snarl, or even an air-snap. “Just back off!” is the message. And the escalation is calculated and purposeful. Dogs are as emphatic as they need to be to get their point across. There’s just one problem — humans often misunderstand and disapprove of many of these signals especially if there is a “fight” involved. And that’s where things can go terribly wrong.
Many owners try to keep their dog from expressing the natural signals that signal they do not want another dog near them. That can be dangerous. By asking the dog to stifle the early, lower-intensity warning signals, we ask them to stay silent until they can stand it no longer.
Instead of being permitted to go through a natural progression from low growl to snarl to stare to bark to air snap and so on, the dog restrains himself (for fear of punishment) until he can no longer contain his discomfort. Now, instead of the stranger dog getting plenty of warning to stay away, they approach quite close until finally Fluffy snaps and goes off in a flurry of barking and snapping.
Every dog is different and each has his or her own preferences for meeting strangers, play, and how close they prefer other dogs. Just like with humans, early socialization and positive experiences with other dogs and even other humans can go a long way toward helping your dog feel comfortable around others. But understanding that your dog may be uncomfortable in certain situations can go a long way.
Don’t be too quick to label a dog as “aggressive” when they may just be under-socialized, sick, or nervous in a new situation. We’ve bred our dogs to be our companions. They are good communicators and are social animals. They are doing their best to get along.
Hi there – 2008 Albany_tim from Flickr
Meeting – 2005 Wanderingone from Flickr
Fight! – 2007 Stefjeff from Flickr
Warning 2009 Spilltojill from Flickr