- Holly Leake
“Don’t Worry He’s Friendly!” The difference between a friendly dog and a polite dog.
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
You have gotten up early to walk your dog. It’s lovely and quiet and you exhale with relief and begin to enjoy your walk with your dog. Then in the distance you suddenly see an off-lead dog running straight towards you at a great speed. You can’t get away quick enough and there’s nowhere to hide. You panic and your heart is racing as you do your best to change direction and distract your dog with treats, with the hopes he won’t spot this dog. The off-lead dog catches up and runs straight into your dog’s face, nearly bowling your dog over and your dog begins to display clear body signals to warn the dog to back off.
You desperately try to intervene and keep a distance, as you don’t want either dog to become harmed, but the other dog is jumping all over your dog’s back and ignoring your dog’s communication. Your dog escalates his behaviour and starts growling, barking and lunging. Then, what feels like 5 minutes later, you spot the owner in the distance and he’s shouting to you “don’t worry he’s friendly”. You can feel yourself getting more and more tense, especially when the off-lead dog ignores the owners calls and continues to do, what you can only describe as bullying.
You try to compose yourself and calmly ask the owner to put their dog on a lead, as your dog is very frightened of other dogs. Hopefully they apologise and take their dog away on lead, however, more often than not, they will respond negatively. “You have to let dogs be dogs and let them sort things out themselves”. “He’s only being friendly; he’s not being aggressive in any way”. “Sorry, he does that, but what are you going to do? Dogs will be dogs”. “It’s a free country, I will do what I want!” “It’s your dog that is being aggressive!” These are just a few remarks I have received in this situation, minus the swearing and abusive tone. You take your dog straight home as he is evidently stressed and you can’t face bumping into another dog walker today. You get home and then do your best to help your dog recover from the negative encounter.
Sadly, you may face bumping into the same individual on a regular basis and you begin avoiding certain areas and start walking at unusual times to avoid this situation reoccurring. Every time you see another off-lead dog, you instantly feel stressed and your patience wears thinner with each interaction with the owners. Without you even realising, Cortisol is being released as your heart rate quickens and your palms sweat. For your dog, every walk can be a source of stress and he may become reactive to things he is usually accustomed to because he is developing anxiety. Every time this situation plays out and your dog becomes stressed, cortisol is released in your dog’s body and it can take up to 72 hours to dissipate. That means that tomorrows walk could be even worse!
Does this sound familiar? It seems to be a common scenario, which is particularly concerning during this COVID-19 pandemic. Maintaining a 2-metre distance is becoming impossible on some walks, particularly since there are more dog walkers than usual, creating more opportunities for this potential situation. Regardless of the current situation, there are many people that have reactive dogs through no fault of their own and they are do everything in their power to keep their dogs happy and safe. You may feel guilty because your dog may appear aggressive in these situations and the other dog looks like he just wants to play, however, there is a difference between friendly and polite behaviour and this blog post goes on to explain that distinct difference. In order to understand the difference between the two, it’s helpful to know what body language and behaviour to look out for, but before we do that, its beneficial to understand what happens in your dog's body when he sees a trigger and feels fear ( such as an off lead dog).
The oldest part of the brain and the emotional centre, is called the limbic system. Within the centre of the limbic system is the Amygdala and this is the area of the brain that dictates the survival response. Strong emotions such as fear, stress, arousal and anger are associated with this part of the brain and it performs the necessary role of decoding emotions. The amygdala plays a necessary role in helping an animal to survive as it interprets danger very quickly. Thus, this is the part of the brain associated with the fear response. If your dog sees a particular trigger that he interprets as dangerous, the amygdala will recognise that danger and your dog's survival response will be activated. Once the amygdala is stimulated, the learning part of the brain is inhibited and your dog can't think or act rationally because his emotions have taken over involuntarily.
According to author Sally Gutteridge ( author of Inspiring Resilience in Your Reactive Dog- a book I thoroughly recommend) your dog's survival response exists within a division of the central nervous system called the sympathetic division, which stimulates the flight, freeze and fight reaction. The reaction your dog chooses is dependent on your dog's individual personality, past experience, previous training and many other factors. Some dogs will initially choose flight if they are fearful, however, being on lead removes that option, so the only other choices are to freeze and hope the triggers goes away or fight, which is when your dog makes themselves look as scary as possible by barking, growling and lunging. It's important to note that dogs may eventually revert to fight as a default reaction because flight and freeze have not been successful in making the scary thing go away on many occasions.
So when your dog barks and lunges at other dogs, he isn't being naughty. He genuinely fears for his survival and his body responds to help him survive. Your dog's response to the trigger is dictated by their past experiences with it as well as the success their response has on making the trigger go away. If your dog is repeatedly having negative experiences with other dogs and his barking and lunging makes that dog go away, his reactive behaviour is positively reinforced and a neural pathway in the brain is formed. This means your dog will continue to default to reactive behaviour and he will believe that its his only choice. Thus, it is our job to teach them that there are other choices but in order to do that we need to understand our dog's body language.
It is well known that a direct unblinking stare is very intimidating and can cause conflict between dogs. This is also true of dogs that put their faces right in your dog’s face. In the canine world, going straight to another dog’s face, is constituted as very rude behaviour and this also applies to a straight head on approach. In order to be polite and effectively communicate, dogs should approach one another on a curve, from a safe a distance. This allows both dogs to examine each other’s body signals from a better angle and determine whether an interaction is possible and wise. The dogs will use what is called calming signals to communicate that they are not a threat and don’t want any conflict. You may see eye squinting, exaggerated eye blinking, yawning and head turning, which are all polite calming signals. If your dog’s body relaxes and they also display calming signals, the dogs will likely attempt a butt sniff.
Now butt sniffing may seem like a disgusting habit to some, but this a natural and necessary part of the greeting between dogs and preventing them from doing this, can actually cause conflict between the dogs. A dog sniffing another dog’s ano-genital region is a polite gesture that should not be prevented since this provides both dogs with personal information that can contribute to their introduction, such as the health, age, sex, diet and more importantly the dog’s mood or emotional state.
Some butt sniffs, however, can be intrusive and impolite and this is usually due to not giving adequate distance between himself and the other dog. In order to establish if this is the case, it’s beneficial to observe the other dog’s body language (the dog being sniffed). If your dog is feeling uncomfortable they may tuck their tail in front of their anus, round their back and become very still and tense. Their ears may plaster back and they may turn their head and look at the dog to communicate that “this is too invasive, back off”. If they are on a lead they may pull in different directions, in an effort to get away. A polite/sociable dog would read these signs of discomfort and back off or display a calming signal to acknowledge your dog’s emotional state.
If it is observed that the butt sniff is too invasive and the dog sniffing is ignoring your dog’s clear signals that they are uncomfortable, then this is not a friendly butt sniff, it is a violation of your dog’s personal space. I always recommend a 3 second rule for butt sniffing (try to keep composure) to ensure the dogs do not become uncomfortable and both should have the opportunity. When the time is up, slowly move your dog away and reward their calmness with a treat.
Once both dogs have had the opportunity to smell each other, then they can smell each others faces and interact, however, make sure you observe their body language, as any sudden stillness and tension in the body can be the calm before the storm. Ensure you keep the lead loose, as your dog will sense any tension coming down the lead and this could negatively influence the interaction. Avoid allowing either dog from placing their head over the head or neck of the other dog (T-shape), as this is considered as rude and threatening and can trigger conflict. Also watch any freezing when they sniffing each other as this can indicate tension and a potential fight.
If your dog doesn’t want to be approached at all and wants to increase the distance between himself and the off-lead dog, you will see subtle initial stress signs such as nose licking, lowered body posture, hyper vigilance, lowered tail and tension in the body. This all may happen within 3 seconds, before your dog’s behaviour becomes more overt and he starts barking and lunging. If your dog feels anxious or uncomfortable, the other dog should politely respect those initial signals, display calming signals to reassure your dog and increase the distance to avoid conflict. If your dog is feeling unsure about the interaction he may display what is called displacement behaviour. (also known as fiddle by Sarah Whitehead)
We as humans actually display displacement behaviour. You know when you are walking down the street or around a shop and you suddenly spot a familiar face of someone you really don't like? What do you do when they walk in your direction? Most of us will get our phone out and start fiddling with it so that we look too busy to interact. This is the exactly the same thing with dogs, except they don’t have mobile phones to use. Instead they pretend to be interested or occupied in doing something else and this can appear as normal dog behaviour that is out of context. Displacement behaviour can include suddenly sniffing the ground whilst stealing quick glances in the dogs direction or they may stop walking and start scratching profusely, just to name a few.
Dogs should recognise this displacement behaviour as a sign of uncertainty. A polite dog may stop his approach and display calming signals to determine the situation. If your dog began to show signs of stress the polite dog should then increase the distance and avoid interaction. This is how a dog interaction should go if both communicate effectively and politely, but as you already know, it rarely plays out this way. However, knowing the signs to look for can really help you to understand how your dog is feeling and predict any negative outcomes. Just remember to always consider the context of behaviour as the meaning of each body signal is dependent on what the rest of the body is doing.
So even though a dog is considered friendly and just wants to play, it does not make him a polite dog. The canine world has rules when it comes to polite canine communication and when these are ignored, your dog is bound to become reactive. That off-lead dog that is running straight towards your dog and neglects to display the correct greeting behaviour, is not being polite so no wonder your dog is telling him to “back off!” The irony is, is that your dog appears aggressive in comparison to the other dog and yet your dog is communicating beautifully and couldn’t be any clearer! The off -lead dog just lacks the training or/and socialisation to understand this communication and/or respect it.
Sadly, this situation will keep reoccurring and its out of your control, however, you can control your response to it and help to build your dog’s resilience. Although it is incredibly frustrating, you need to try and stay calm (I know how hard this is and it does take practice) and polite because your dog will sense any tension or stress you feel and this can deepen his fear of other dogs and escalate his reactivity. Many studies have proven that our emotions have a huge influence on our dog’s emotions and behaviour, so it’s vital we keep ours in check, however, we cannot reinforce our dogs fear if we comfort them. (Check out one of my other articles Can You Reinforce Your Dog’s Fear? - Woofbuzz)
I also recommend bringing out your dog’s favourite treat, such as a sausage or chew, and keep that with you on every walk as an emergency distraction, so that you can leave the situation when you see an off-lead dog. But remember don’t panic! Slowly get the treat out, show it to your dog and let them have a chew while you change direction. However, if your dog has already started barking and lunging, the learning part of their brain has already shut down, as the emotional part of the brain takes over and they will not accept even their favourite foods or respond to learned cues, because they have gone above their coping threshold. Therefore, its imperative that you recognise the early, subtle signs of stress, uncertainty or fear before their behaviour becomes more overt. Then you will be able engage the learning part of their brain before emotions take over and they become reactive or aggressive. The more conflict with dogs you avoid, the stronger your dog’s resilience will be and the calmer they will feel.
Once you are home, try to engage your dog in an activity that will distract him. Enrichment provides healthy mental stimulation and the food will help release Dopamine, which is the pleasure hormone. There are many activities you could provide that will be beneficial, such as hiding treats in the garden, filling a Kong with your dog's favourite food, placing a licky mat out covered in dog friendly peanut butter or liver paste and/or hiding treats in a snuffle mat or under a towel.
I also recommend Sarah Fisher's Free work, which you can find on her Facebook group Ace Connections. This involves setting up toys and treats on different surfaces and at different heights without the restriction of a harness, lead or collar. No training is involved, just sit back and watch while your dog enjoys choosing what he wants to do. Activities such as these, will relax your dog and help him to recover from the negative encounter. Make sure you also put your feet up and have a cuppa to help you calm down too!
Reactivity is one of the most common behavioural issues affecting dog owners today and it can make calm dog walks seem impossible. I have many years of experience, as well as training, working with reactive dogs and I can help you to build your dog’s resilience. I offer one to one training that is positive and reward-based, to help your dog to become gradually desensitised to other dogs. If you are reliving this experience over and over, please feel free to contact me to arrange a consultation and I can help you to inculcate coping strategies to help you manage these situations.
Due to Covid-19, social distancing doesn’t permit face to face consultations at present, however, I am happy to do consultations on a video chat through software, such as zoom, to get you started and we can begin face to face training, once things normalise. In the meantime, feel free to contact me and look at my Paw Chores Services and Testimonials.
Please also check out Sally Gutteridge's books on Amazon, I can wholeheartedly recommend them to both dog owners and canine professionals. Please also see her college Canine Principles (who I am currently studying with) as they offer a range of simple courses for dog owners regarding reactivity, canine fear and canine anxiety.
Remember, if all else fails, tell the rude dog walker with the impolite off-lead dog, that you have coronavirus and watch how fast they move their dog away!
Take care and stay safe on your dog walks.