Canine Social Manners Matter

Walking my dogs recently, a neighbor stopped to chat for a few minutes.

While we were talking, she continued to move closer and closer to me. Although she only moved a few inches at a time, I began feeling uneasy and realized my discomfort was caused by her invasion of my personal space. I wasn’t getting the feeling that she was trying to make me feel uncomfortable; she simply had a smaller personal space bubble than I do. While I could have continued to back away from her instead I had my big dog, Bashir, sit in front of me and she stopped moving in on me.

We humans have social manners to which most people adhere. Many misunderstandings happen when a traveler doesn’t understand another culture’s social manners. However, when someone who is a part of a culture makes a mistake or who purposely breaks social rules, then repercussions can ensue.

Dogs Have Social Rules Too

These rules, which are usually taught to puppies by well-mannered adult dogs, help prevent misunderstandings that might lead to dog fights. Those rules include not intruding on a dog’s personal space (which includes not charging up to a dog), not mounting the other dog, and paying attention to the other dog’s body language and other means of communication.

A good example of this is mounting behaviors. Puppies often mount (or hump) each other in puppyhood and this is usually the result of over-excitement rather than hormones. In addition, a puppy who feels left out of a play session may mount another puppy to gain some attention. Most of the time this mounting will be ignored or the puppy being mounted will simply move away. However, if the mounting puppy persists, he may find flashing teeth in his face backed up by a deep growl. In other words, he’ll be ignored until he goes too far and then he’ll be told to stop it.

Once the puppy attains adulthood, however, the only mounting allowed is during breeding. If one dog attempts to mount another at any other time, depending on the dogs involved, it is usually immediately stopped. Canine social rules, like our social rules, exist to help individuals get along with each other.

©istockphoto/Brian Asmussen

©istockphoto/Brian Asmussen

Well Mannered Adults Teach

A dog who was taught as a puppy how to be a well mannered member of canine society is the best teacher for other puppies. My oldest dog, Bashir, has taught many puppies how to be well mannered members of the canine world. He’s helped me raise four dogs in my household, but also many puppies in my puppy classes. He will be calm, quiet, and playful with the younger members of his species but when a puppy shows rude behavior Bashir will first get still, make eye contact with the puppy, and then wait. If the puppy stops the unwanted behavior then all is well. If the puppy continues, then a growl and bark will ensue. When the puppy rolls over to bare his belly and say he’s sorry, then again, all will be well. Bashir’s communication is very clear.

An adult dog who doesn’t understand the proper rules for social interactions will not be a good teacher. He will be more likely to teach the young dogs what he knows rather than what the younger dog should know.

When People Get Involved

Sometimes well-meaning dog owners can confuse their dogs. For example, when strange dogs greet each other without human interference, well mannered dogs will stop before invading the other dog’s personal space. They will sniff the ground, walk side by side, or one may drop a toy in front of the other one. One dog’s goal is to tell the other dog he isn’t rude or dangerous.

However, puppy owners have been told over and over again that puppies need socialization and so they allow (or even encourage) their puppy to greet any and every dog they see. When an adult dog doesn’t appreciate the puppy’s rude behavior, however, the puppy owners often get offended and cry out, “Your dog is mean!” In reality, though, the puppy was being extremely rude even though the puppy’s owners thought he was being friendly. Meanwhile, the puppy, who had no idea he was being rude because he hasn’t been taught any different, now thinks strange dogs are dangerous. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, and confusion abound.

©istockphoto/beinder

©istockphoto/beinder

Teach Your Puppy to be Polite

Many puppy classes offer puppy play sessions. These supervised play sessions allow puppies to play with other puppies of the same age where they can run, chase, wrestle, tumble around, get dirty, and just have fun. This play also helps the puppies learn motor skills, learn bite inhibition, and bullying isn’t allowed. The trainers who supervise these class sessions will usually pull aside any puppy who’s being a bully and let him calm down before re-joining the play.

In addition to these great skills, you also need to teach your puppy to adhere to polite behavior with other dogs. When you and your puppy are out for a walk, don’t let your puppy charge towards another dog, dragging you behind. Instead, walk calmly towards the other dog and then before you reach that dog, have your puppy sit (and remain sitting). Ask the dog owner if her dog is friendly with other dogs, especially with puppies. If she says no, that’s fine; keep your puppy in a sit without going up to that dog. After all, there is no rule that says every puppy needs to greet every other dog.

If the dog owner says her dog is friendly to puppies, kneel down, hold your puppy’s collar and let that dog come up to greet your puppy. Let them interact as long as both the dog and puppy are happy. If either one appears stressed about the situation, move them apart. Your goal in this situation is to keep the greeting happy and friendly for both the puppy and the adult dog. If your puppy gets too excited and the adult dog growls, let that happen, and then move your puppy away and have her sit. After all, the adult just told her she was crossing the line.

Other Teaching Opportunities

If you have an older puppy (older than six months or so) or an adult dog, your dog will be too old for puppy play sessions or puppy class. However, you can still help your dog learn correct social manners.

Ask friends and neighbors if they have a dog friendly adult dog who might be willing to play with your dog. Supervise these sessions, though. Don’t grab a coffee and chat inside while the dogs play outside; instead, all of the dog owners can chat outside with the dogs while supervising them. If the play gets too intense or rough, let the dogs lie down and stay until everyone calms down. Then let the play resume.

Talk to a doggy day care owner and ask if they offer smaller groups where a socially inept dog could play with one or two older dogs who might be able to teach him. Make sure the play is supervised and that someone will step in and stop any inappropriate behavior.

My favorite way to teach a socially inept dog, though, is by going for a walk. If several dog owning friends will go for walks with you and your dog, that would be wonderful. Make sure the dogs walk with their owners and offer little to no interactions between dogs. The dogs are simply to walk with their owners. Any dog who gets too rowdy is interrupted and asked to focus on his owner. The focus is on being calm around other dogs while getting some exercise and using obedience skills.

The best thing you can do for your dog, however, is to teach him to look to you for guidance. When walking my dogs and we see another dog, I want them to look to me. I can then tell them to ignore the other dog, to sit and watch me, or, if the dog is a friend, to sit and wait until our friends walk up to us. By looking to me for guidance I can help my dogs have great social skills and I can prevent problems from occurring.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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