A Call for the Dogmestication of Humans

At class, I spend a lot of time telling students the way that dogs like to be greeted and as importantly, the ways that dogs do not like to be greeted.

Unfortunately, the usual way for humans to greet new dogs seems to look something like this:  human spots dog.  Pupils dilate.  Human rushes up to dog, assuring the handler "dogs love me!" as they bend over the dog staring down at him and baring teeth in a great big smile, patting (generally quite vigorously) all over the place, whether the dog likes it or not. 

If this is you, I empathize.  Trust me, few people in the world are as excited about meeting new dogs and puppies as I am.  I get it, really.

What's wrong with this equation?  The problem is, many dogs do not enjoy that type of greeting one bit.  In fact, some dogs hate that type of "friendly hello."  In doglish, this is a very intimidating greeting and can be cause for fear.  Dogs that are afraid of these types of greetings usually tell us, and we too often turn a deaf ear to them because we are unable to understand what they're saying. 

When humans ignore the signs of a dog's discomfort, the dog is left to communicate his feelings through the only form of communication humans routinely respond to - dog teeth on skin.  Dogs learn very quickly this makes virtually all humans back off when every subtle plea for space goes unanswered.  The problem with THAT is that dog's usually lose, they are frequently labeled "aggressive" and euthanized because they are "menaces to society."  Unlike in human justice, where self defense is a legitimate defense, dogs are not always spared the death penalty when they use physical means to protect themselves from what they see as imminent harm.

This comes to the nature of what behaviorist Jean Donaldson calls "The Culture Clash."  Things that are normal for dogs (chasing prey, killing small animals/hunting, food scavenging/counter surfing, rolling in dead things, digging, mounting, etc.) are unacceptable to humans.  Things that are normal for humans (looking someone in the eye when you introduce yourself, approach face to face, hugging, watching television, reading books, etc.) are not normal for dogs.  These misunderstandings and the corresponding lack of knowledge necessary to move beyond them spells trouble for dogs and humans, and can endanger safety for both two and four-legged community members.  How do we transcend this culture clash?

First, humans need to learn more about dogs.  Both humans that like dogs and those that do not like dogs, as dogs are in virtually every community worldwide.  Dogs are arguably the most successful domesticated species on the planet, and we owe it about them to return the favor through "dogmesticating" ourselves.  Those that do not like dogs often dislike them because they are afraid of dogs.  These individuals can really benefit from understanding the language of dogs, it can empower them to feel safe and better able to assess and react appropriately to situations when they find themselves in the company of canines.

Whether or not we choose to listen, dogs speak to us all the time; not in sentences but in facial expressions, body language, and through a variety of what I call "action signals" - actions which are intended to signal some aspect of the dog's emotional state to others in the environment.  Those that like dogs will come to appreciate them all the more when two-way communication is possible (dogs communicate to humans through body language, action signals, even the hardness of the mouth when taking treats; and humans communicate through cues, clicks, reinforcement, tone of voice as well as through body language).

There are a number of wonderful resources on the market which will help you learn the language of dogs.  Suggested resources include:

On Talking Terms with Dogs:  Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas

Canine Body Language:  A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff

Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handelman

Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior by Roger Abrantes, Alice Rasmussen, and Sarah Whitehead

If a dog is displaying any combination of the following behaviors:  growling, barking, hackling, looking or backing away from, stiff and rapidly wagging tail, frequent yawning, licking, displaying much of the whites of his eyes ("whale eye"), shaking as if he is trying to dry off (although he is dry), he is trying to tell you to back off.  On the other hand, if his body is loose and wiggly, his tongue hanging out, tail not stiff but relaxed and wagging happily, you may then ask his owner for permission to greet.


That's right, I said it.  Whether you are six or sixty, you should always ask permission before greeting someone else's dog.  I think that many people feel that as part of the domestication bargain, we give dogs food and homes and therefore are entitled to touch, approach, and greet any dog we see, in any way we like, at any time we like, no matter what the circumstances.  This entitlement complex can be a real challenge for the owner of a fearful dog, who may be standing between her dog and oncoming foot traffic pleading "stay away from my dog!" as the person barrels past her, knocking her down while promising "dogs love me" as the dog begins to cower and urinate all over herself.  More on this later.

Remember:  reading before greeting!  Always read a dog's body language, then ask the owner's permission before greeting their dog.  If you read before we greet, and get permission to say hello, what is the right way to approach this new canine friend?

In my opinion, "the right way to approach a strange dog" is the wrong way to approach the issue.  People are generally quite shocked at my response when they ask me how they should approach strange dogs. 

My answer is, "you shouldn't."  Ever.  Not without an invitation from the dog. 

Back to the entitlement complex - just drop it.  Not every dog wants to be touched by every person.  While it is important to ask permission from an owner to greet their dog, the most important request in the entire greeting equation should be you asking the dog - do you want to greet me?  If the dog's body language tells you no, move on.  It's nothing personal, I promise; and I know rejection hurts.  I've worked with some unbelievably cute dogs that had absolutely no desire for me to touch them.  It takes every modicum of self-restraint I have to avoid trying to scratch them softly behind the ears or give them bum scritchies.  For many of these dogs, it takes months of trust and relationship building before they solicit contact from me.  That's ok!

Always let a dog choose to approach you.  Want to tip the scales in your favor and maximize the chances of success for your new friendship?  Here's what you do, speaking the language of dogs.

Turn your head slightly away, and crouch down perpendicular to the dog.  Stick your hand out, palm up, lower than the dog's head.  Allow him to sniff you.  If he approaches, and his body language remains welcoming, you may then give him some light scratches under the chin and on his chest.  Most dogs prefer this to pats on top of the head.

Now, to the disclaimer "not without an invitation;" if a dog play bows and then drops onto his back, tail wagging, tongue lolling out, wiggling everywhere, he probably is inviting you to scratch his belly.  My advice in these situations is to scratch that belly, you won't regret it!

These tips for the dogmestication of humans will help keep both humans and dogs safe.  Check back for my next entry, on what dog owners must do to keep up their end of this bargain!


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