The other day I was working with an "aggressive" dog. I use the quotations because I do not feel she was truly aggressive. Rather, she was very nervous. She had gotten to the point where she would behave around strangers as long as they left her alone, but if they encroached on her space (i.e. tried to pet her), she would become nervous and snap at them. She had never made contact, but she would do anything to scare them off. Many people said she was a bad dog. I got to thinking, though, how bad was her behavior?
Imagine this: You are walking through a crowd with one of your friends. Some random stranger approaches you, caresses your chin, rubs your ear, and gives you a kiss. How would you react? I'm pretty sure I would call the cops. Actually, as somewhat who has been groped in public, I know I'd do anything possible to merely get away. If this can happen with a bad look, great, but if more force is required then I'll use it.
Now imagine this: You're ten years old, and you're meeting your Aunt Judy (fictional character) for the first time. Your mom and dad have cleaned you up, and you're waiting at the front door for her. Being a little odd, when Aunt Judy arrives she sweeps you in her arms, pinches your cheeks, talks in baby talk, and kisses your cheeks. How would you react? Well, if you're anything like me you'll hate it, but you'll grin and bear it because you know your parents told you to.
First of all, what's the biggest difference between these scenarios? In both cases you are dealing with people you have never met. In both cases, this person is seriously crossing the boundaries of personal space. In both cases, you are extremely uncomfortable. However, in Aunt Judy's case, you have your parents giving you instruction. They've told you who she is. They're telling you to behave (or lose your Gameboy). You're trusting them, and in trusting them you trust Aunt Judy. If they hadn't shared any information with you, if they hadn't told you who this person was or that she was visiting, if they weren't there to tell you everything was OK, you'd probably call the cops and claim someone had broken into your house and was trying to touch you. Guess what. Dogs feel the same way.
Most people who claim that their dog bites without any warning are merely missing the signs. They miss the licking of lips and the heavy panting. They miss the excessive drool. They miss the lowered ears and head, and they miss the turning away of the body and the sideways glances. Sometimes they miss their dogs' attempts at escape, and occasionally they even miss the dog's growl! The dog is giving all these signs saying, "I am not happy! I am scared and nervous. Please make this stop" and still the owner does nothing. They don't tell the dog how to respond (sit, stay, do a trick, etc), and they don't tell the other people how to react. Instead, they just let random people approach and greet their dogs in completely inappropriate ways. When the dog has done everything it can to get away but is still stuck with no guidance, it then reacts with a snap.
This is where I say, "BAD PERSON!! BAD, BAD, BAD PERSON!" Bad owner for not helping your dog. Bad stranger for acting so inappropriately and not even introducing yourself first. I could tell you you're breaking dog social behaviors (which you are), but you're doing more than that. You're breaking HUMAN social behaviors! You are expecting a dog you've never met to be completely fine with you simply because you're a person and dogs should like people. Well, if a dog was raised that way and has become accustomed to that sort of behavior, then fine. But if a dog was raised more like a person, then we have a problem. So, to help you out, I've prepared a couple of lists of things to follow. One's for dog strangers, and the other is for dog owners.
For Dog Strangers
1) Always ask the owner before approaching a dog. Simply say, "May I pet your dog." Most people will say yes, but if the owner says no, then leave the dog alone. (You'd be surprised at how many people ask this question but ignore the answer).
2) Introduce yourself to the dog. Let the dog sniff you. I usually let the dog sniff the back of my hand because it's the safest place, but really any body part (other than your face) will do.
3) Start petting in the least-threatening way possible. Basically, reach with your hand headed underneath the dog's chin. Trying to pat the top of the head is not really comfortable for the dog, and it can be a little nerve wracking. I generally like to aim for the chin, neck, and ears depending on the dog.
For Dog Owners
1) Socialize your dog. You can't always rely on people to do the right thing, so help your dog out. From a young age, take him/her out to meet as many people as possible. Have your dog meet people of different origins, people with beards, people with piercings, young people, old people, short people, tall people. Let your dog know that all these people are here to love on him/her.
2) Guide your dog. Tell your dog how to react in potentially stressful situations. Cody actually has a "Go say hi" command. This lets him know that I am OK if he breaks his sit-stay to greet the approaching person / dog. It's his cue that I am fine with this person, and he will like them if he meets them. I have other commands that tell Cody that I am not OK with a person approaching, and he should be a little defensive. I also have commands that tell Cody that I am sure the person is fine, but that I don't want Cody to approach. This basically means do nothing. I usually use a sit-stay or down-stay for this.
3) Watch the signs. Get to know your dog. Figure how your dog acts when he/she is nervous. If you know your dog is nervous, help him/her out. Don't force your dog into an extremely stressful situation.
That's it! Only three simple rules for both dog owners and dog strangers. I know we'd all love to have extremely sociable dogs who want to greet everyone, but that's not always the case. Sometimes we have to choose to do what's best for our dog, and sometimes that is not always what we want to do. In the end, though, if you follow this, your life with dogs will be much happier.