Ruff Love: How to Create a Canine Connection

Ruby is approaching with her ears loosely back, soft eyes, and low, wide-sweeping tail. "Let's connect!"
Ruby is approaching with her ears loosely back, soft eyes, and low, wide-sweeping tail. “Let’s connect!”

Alrighty, before I start today’s topic I have got to tell you about a ginormous, bonus offering on dog training books. (Just skip this sentence if you are eager to get to the blog post. I mean, who has time for chit chat in this zany, fast-paced world?) Until midnight tonight, Monday, November 4th, you can get 40% off Puppy Savvy and Happy Kids, Happy Dogs (and all other books) at Lulu.com. Just enter coupon code FALLSALE40 at checkout.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I was recently asked how a person, especially a child, should approach a dog. Naturally that is a trick question. Anyone who wants to interact with a dog should be waiting for the dog to approach them. This begs the following six questions:

1. What the heck are you talking about?
2. What if the dog doesn’t approach me?
3. What if the dog is prevented from approaching me because the owner has asked the dog to hold a position like a sit-stay, or is holding the dog by the collar or in their arms?
4. What if my dog goes bananas around people and therefore I purposefully prevent the dog from approaching others by having the dog hold a stay?
5. What if I have a dog who never voluntarily approaches people?
6. What if people don’t give my dog a chance to approach before reaching toward him or her?

I think it might be fun and useful to take on each of these questions in a blog series. What better timing than right before the holidays, when people and dogs are packed so tightly in each other’s space they might as well be stuffed into one of those little clown cars.

Let’s jump right in and start with the first question…

What the heck are you talking about?

As you can tell by my ABC’s of Dog Safety and Respect I am not only an advocate (as are other modern dog trainers) of asking the dog’s person whether it is okay to touch their dog, but I’m also an advocate of asking the dog. If you see a dog you’d like to greet, here is the way to do it: 

Ask permission of the person.

Be a tree in order to ask permission of the dog: With hands at your side, stand and wait for the dog to approach you.

Chin or chest is where you should pet.

Fight the urge to stick out your hand (presumably in an effort to allow the dog to sniff you). That is outdated advice. As in, using-leeches-to-treat-a-fever outdated. The dog has already smelled you. He or she can smell you from Coney Island, trust me. When you stick out your hand, you are making a rude gesture to the dog. “Rude in what way?” you may be thinking.

Rude like so: Imagine I just introduced you to a pal of mine, and she said hi and then went right in toward your neck with both hands and straightened out your crumpled collar. “Whoa! Easy there, well-meaning new friend!” you’d be thinking. On one hand, she has kind intentions, but on the other hand, she doesn’t pause to imagine how you would feel about her actions. Think how differently you would feel if she said, “It’s so nice to meet you. I notice your collar is rumpled; would you like me to fix it?” She has just invited you to be an active participant in the interaction. If you want to make a connection with her that is more on the intimate side, you might well take her up on it. If you’d rather wait to get to know her a bit before having her adjust your clothes, you will appreciate how thoughtful she is and just fix it yourself. By asking you first, she may well have earned your trust right off the bat, instead of alienating you by coming on too strong. Maybe, just maybe, she will become one of those rare you’ve-got-parsely-stuck-between-your-teeth friends.

If you’ve always extended your hand toward dogs and swear you’ve made zillions of dog buddies this way, please consider this: When you choose to reach toward the dog’s nose you are proving that there is a gap between you wide enough to allow a reach. That means the dog has not come up to you voluntarily. What might the dog be saying by hanging back a bit? (Dramatic pause for reflection.) Are you willing to listen?

It is polite, respectful, safer, and compassionate to wait for the dog to approach you, and here’s why (here comes the rough love portion of the post). Wanting to show your affection for dogs is a wonderful, wonderful thing. You may want to touch a dog because that makes you happy. Or maybe you are taken with a particular pooch. Or you want your child to feel comfortable with animals, or your child is desperate to touch the dog in front of you. These reasons are all perfectly understandable. However, and this may be difficult to acknowledge at first, none of those reasons is more important than the dog’s feelings. Remember, the dog has few options due to being on a leash, tethered, in a small space, or otherwise confined. If you fail to ask the dog, but instead just move in using old timey moves like sticking out your hand or patting the dog on the top of the head, you are invading the dog’s space and starting off your encounter with a fairly rude (and also potentially unsafe) maneuver.

Ask yourself: Would you want someone touching you (or your child) just because they feel like it, or because your child is (or you are) super cute? How about if you were saying, “No, I need my space,” loud and clear to the grabby person, and they touched you anyway? Even worse! And then there’s the awful ripple effect you could create: Do you want your child to learn that “I wanna!” is a good enough reason to touch others who are saying “no?” That thought should give you the heebie jeebies. No person should get to touch someone just because they really, really want to.

Dogs have their reasons for sometimes not wanting us to get close and touch them. And that should count. We should listen. And we should show our love in ways that take the other’s feelings into account. We should also teach kids to listen and to care about how others feel. We are all connected, and the more we practice paying attention to that, the better off we will be. This “ask and listen” practice may seem like no big deal at first glance, yet thinking of others this way is so powerful that it can change our world.

What do you think about doing an experiment the next five times you see a dog you’d like to touch? Would you be willing to try just standing still, and seeing if the dog comes up to you? If you’re even the least bit curious, give it a try! I would love to hear what you experience.

Tune in next time when we see grown adults have massive meltdowns on the sidewalk, trying to cope when dogs do not approach them, and we answer the question, “What if the dog doesn’t approach me?

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Gettin’ Schooled on Freaky Friday

Time for a Freaky Friday multiple choice quiz! Freaky Friday is the day we see the world from the dog’s perspective (just like Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan did when they switched bodies in the movie).

I thought I’d try out a twist to the format (thanks to your feedback). Below the photo I will point out some body language the dog is displaying that gives clues into how he or she is feeling. Since this Friday’s photo is from a classroom, I thought I’d offer a multiple choice quiz, too (see below). Please let me know what you think, about the clues, the quiz and about the dog’s perspective.

This dog may love children. His person is generously sharing him with the kids. All good, in theory. But what is the dog’s perspective, at least in this moment (copied with permission with the N&O)? What do you notice about his ears, eyes, mouth, body position/direction/movement?

GreatDaneClassroom

Ears: stiff and rotated half-back
Eyes: wide, pupils very dilated (a bit hard to see in the copy of the print)
Mouth: shallow panting, corners of mouth drawn far back
Body: head turned away from kids, moving away (biggest and clearest clue)

Quiz time! Choose one based on what the dog is trying to tell us with his body language:

a) This dog would probably like it if the humans kept doing what they are doing.

b) This dog is feeling very relaxed.

c) This dog is trying to create space for himself because he is not feeling comfortable.

Extra credit: If you were the dog’s handler, how would you rearrange the space and positioning of yourself, your dog, and the kids? What instructions would you have given the kids in advance? What would you do/say to the kids right this minute if you noticed all these signs of stress in your dog?

Study aids:

Madeline Gabriel’s new blog post on what to do when other kids are around your dog: Dogs and Babies Learning
Wendy Wahmann’s (funny and wise) book on the right way for kids to make friends with dogs: Don’t Lick the Dog (book trailer)
K9Kindness for new doggie educational programs in the classroom: K9Kindness

I look forward to your questions and comments. No grades, but you get points for trying to imagine how this dog feels!