Words: Lisa Hird
What does the term “dog-friendly” really mean and how useful is it in our lives with our dogs? To understand this question better, let’s look at the example of holiday accommodation. Some properties state that dogs are welcome, or that the property is dog-friendly. In truth, some of these properties are not dog-friendly at all – they are dog-tolerant. We may find restrictions about where dogs are allowed and where they are not. For example, dogs may not be allowed in the bedroom, or in certain areas of the house, or not allowed on furniture or in certain parts of the garden.
In comparison, we find some properties that not only welcome dogs, but that try to make their stay as close to being at home as possible. Covers are provided for furniture, and dogs are allowed anywhere in the property or garden. These properties can truly be deemed “dog-friendly”.
Dogs themselves are also often described as dog-friendly, but when we take a closer look at their body language and behaviour, they may be better described as dog-tolerant or dog-selective rather than dog-friendly.
A common situation many caregivers face is their own on-lead dog being harassed or intimidated by an off-lead dog running over, followed by owners shouting “It’s OK, my dog is friendly”. If there is any friction between the two dogs, people often say “It’s OK, he needs to learn!”.
Another common situation is other caregivers bringing their dog close because their dog is “sociable” and is bouncing on the end of the lead to get close, perhaps even barking. Their dog is not really “dog-friendly” – he has no manners and no idea how to approach another dog in a polite way. As a puppy, he may have been allowed to meet and play with every single dog he met, with no boundaries or restrictions on how that play continues. Having a dog who is eager to meet and greet other dogs is great, but it does not mean that they should be automatically allowed to go right up close to other dogs’ faces, especially if the other dog is nervous or even reactive.
Socialisation is the process by which puppies learn to relate to and act appropriately with people and other animals. Socialisation does not mean that dogs can and should interact with every dog they see; in fact, the truth is quite the opposite. Socialisation is exposure to dogs – but not necessarily getting to meet and play with every dog they see. Socialisation is about getting used to various stimuli and learning to sometimes ignore them. It is not the job of other dogs to teach our dogs sociable behaviours. This is our job.
Many sociable dogs who have not learnt to ignore other dogs just want to play, and when they cannot, they may pull or whine or begin to lunge towards the other dog or even chew and rag on the lead. Quite apart from being sore and unpleasant for the handler, it can often set the greeting off on the wrong foot.
Imagine someone you do not know coming over to you, screaming HELLO in a loud voice, running at you with arms outstretched… worse still, you are tied up and know you can’t leave the situation in order to help yourself feel safe. We might then understand why friction between dogs in these situations is so commonplace.
The origin of the domestic dog is a complex story with many unresolved details on location and timing, but we do know that domestication has affected intraspecific social relationships in several ways. Intraspecific communication signals are essential for the formation of social bonds. These include visual, olfactory and auditory cues that are universal among members of Canis familiaris. For the most part, dogs recognise and understand each other regardless of breed, size, differences in coat length or surgical changes. Moreover, dogs display the same or similar signals to their human caregivers that they use to interact with other dogs.
It is believed, however, that artificial selection has caused dogs to retain juvenile traits, both behavioural and morphological, leading to a reduction in the capacity of dogs to communicate visually with conspecifics. Feddersen-Petersen (2007) suggested that visual communication in dogs may be somewhat impaired due to their reduced visual expression caused by their altered morphology. Goodwin et al (1997) also suggest that artificial selection has affected agonistic visual signals of domestic dogs. This may give us some understanding of why there may be frequent misunderstandings and impaired communications between dogs in the park today.
The best model to learn about the dog’s social capabilities might be from observing feral dogs – but unfortunately most feral dogs have been affected by human interference. Interestingly, a study by Bonanni and Cafazzo (2014) entitled “The social organisation of a population of free-ranging dogs in a suburban area of Rome” suggests that dogs are more likely to form stable relationships when they are not socialised to humans.
According to Feddersen-Petersen (2007), while humans may be the main social partners of many dogs and relations with conspecifics may often be scarce, the results of their studies suggest that domestic dogs possess the potential to develop long-term, complex social bonds with their conspecifics and not just with humans.
So, does it really matter whether our dog is dog-friendly, dog-selective or dog-tolerant? Absolutely. If dogs are repeatedly placed in situations they are not comfortable in, there may be repercussions later. The dog previously believed to be dog-friendly may become very dog-selective in future. However, for dog-selective dogs, it can still be important to enjoy quality time with known peers. Dog-selective dogs can still enjoy dog-dog time, as long as it is managed and protected.
Dogs can fall into different categories in respect of other dogs, and their relationships can be complicated. Most puppies begin their lives as truly dog-friendly. In general, puppies enjoy and seek out other dogs and may even tolerate rude behaviours from other dogs. As they reach adolescence, things may begin to change. Although hormones have a lot to do with adolescent changes, they are not the only thing responsible for some of the behaviours we may see. It is worth noting that dog-dog socialisation may deteriorate during adolescence so we should continue with positive and careful socialisation – and not just limit it to the “initial socialisation” period. True dog-friendliness is rare in adult dogs – yet we often expect our dogs to remain this way for life.
Dog sociability is not a personality trait. As dogs reach maturity, they may become less sociable and tolerant. We know that there are people who we really get along well with and whose company we really enjoy, and we may be considered a sociable person ourselves. This does not mean that we like every single person we meet, and we may not want to spend a long period of time in the company of some people.
Some dogs may be dog-selective at some point in their lifetime. They will have several dogs who they enjoy playing or walking with. The selection of these “approved” dog friends is often decided upon through play styles, or indeed no play at all! Dog-selective dogs may have a small circle of approved dogs they enjoy spending time with, but minor scuffles may break out between them if boundaries are crossed. Dog-selective dogs require supervision and guidance from humans, delivered in a calm and positive manner. Dog selectivity is very normal for a dog at maturity!
Some dogs are dog-tolerant. These dogs have good communication skills and use these during interactions with other dogs. They may play with some dogs and ignore others. Dog-tolerant dogs generally require little input from their caregivers as they can manage their own interactions through good communication skills. Dog-tolerant is a common place for dogs to end up at maturity.
Dogs often consider the relative costs and benefits of their actions and, out in the real world, we can benefit from understanding the dog’s perception of these costs and benefits. Temperament adds another dimension to the valuation of perceived costs and benefits in a dog’s behaviour. Dogs, like many other animal species, have certain temperament dispositions such as confident, laid-back, independent, timid and adaptable.
Understanding how an individual perceives their surroundings is key to understanding how they calculate relative costs and benefits. Cost-benefit calculations occur continuously in our dogs and we can gain an insight into social behaviour problems from watching dog interactions at a park. A common issue is when a “dog-friendly” dog becomes overwhelmed by the intensity of a social interaction – this can happen with dog-tolerant or dog-selective dogs. If the situation becomes out of control, he may re-evaluate his costs and benefits and turn to defensive behaviour to regain some control over the situation. We cannot expect our dogs to tolerate rude behaviour from other dogs, or bullying behaviour of any description, without acting in a way that helps them feel safe. This is why it can be really important for us caregivers to be able to read our dogs’ body language and be able to recognise positive AND negative communications between dogs, so that we can help to protect them from interactions they are not comfortable with. In doing so, we are protecting our dogs from struggling and becoming dog-selective, or even dog-aggressive.
Jean Donaldson, a professional dog trainer in the US, suggests there are many dogs who lack sufficient meeting, greeting and interacting experience with other dogs. This can result in dogs who are “over-the-top” in their interactions or dogs who shy away from other dogs because of proximity sensitivity. We must learn to read our dogs and find out what they enjoy if we are to support them in their social interactions. We would do well to have a sound understanding of who our dogs are, the sort of interactions they enjoy and a good recognition of canine body language. Ultimately, though, we often just need to accept that we don’t love everyone we meet – so why would our dogs?