Holding back - the intelligent art of tolerance in dogs

karen wild pickles winking at daft humans

Chatting with a client during a behaviour session recently, I was moved to comment. They stated that their dog was extremely large and that they were afraid. The dog had grabbed at visitors' trouser legs on two occasions and on another, had nipped someone's ankles as they retreated from the room. The family lead a very busy but gentle life with callers at all hours and times, and this dog was described as a nervous puppy, right from the outset. Always hiding, or going to her crate when people arrived. Despite their socialisation and training attempts, this pup remained wary and shy. Only recently had things escalated to this point where she would actively chase them away and bite them to make her point.

This was not a playful nor a predatory behaviour. I saw with my own eyes how fearful she was, and how she desperately did not want unfamiliar people near her.

My comment was 'Your dog Pippa is tall, fast and strong. She could target people's faces, throats, their thighs, their stomachs. Instead, she is doing 'just enough' to make them go-go-go. She is reaching down to grab at their ankles instead. She has not broken the skin. (Yet)'. Unwanted behaviour, and a clearly stressed animal that needed help, yes, but I wanted these owners to understand that their adorable, softie pet that they also loved dearly, was trying her very, very best NOT to hurt them.

I have been met with dogs that have bitten perhaps 3 or 4 times, but over several years rather than within months. Each time, the action has built up gradually into something more severe. I think readers of this site are informed enough to know that there are so many causes and preventions of biting behaviour that we can now effectively assess risk, what to do and how to alleviate such things. We can see how they escalate (and if you are not sure, please do look up Kendal Shepherd's Ladder of Aggression for a coherent view). We will always need to assess situations on a case-by-case basis. And yet, I felt it needs to be remembered that dogs often only try to do 'just enough'.

Let us recognise and celebrate just how incredibly tolerant dogs can be. How they actually could do a lot more, a lot more frequently and a lot harder and more damaging than they actually do. Why is it that we do not actually give them credit for holding back? Or further, why assume that dogs will never bite?

Other species, even domesticated ones that pretty much choose to live with us, such as cats, are less likely to tolerate any monkey business from us primates. They let us know immediately what they like and do not like, and whilst we talk about their micro-signals in terms of body language these are still things that we are only just beginning to fully understand. We complain that cats can be a little harsh and unpredictable (one minute a purring fur-buddy, the next, a cutting maniac), we nurse the scratches they inflict, but we still feed them and pet them and they generally do not get whisked down to the Vet or trainer/behaviourist.

With dogs, however, many onlookers do not afford such generousity. Should we consider a dog to be a punch-bag for all our family upheavals, emotional outbursts and deafening noise? We teach them (or should do) that life with humans is like this, but if they do not get this education, and even if they do, we know they can find it really hard to live with us. Then, when they cannot manage, they show it.

Perhaps an analogy is the attitude 'Just because we can, doesn't mean we should' that we teach with dog training and indeed, other sports and activities and also in life. Those of you that know I study martial arts will witness how in training, a more skilled, heavier person should not take it out on someone less skilled or smaller. Anyone who does this purposefully is considered to have a psychological problem. The more capable person holds back. We learn to deal with those who don't.

A dog is capable of doing a huge amount of damage, but they don't. Even when many bite, they do just enough to get them out of trouble. They may snap, a deliberate miss. They may nip, as Pippa felt she had to do. They put up with harsh training, and can be chosen on purpose to do so. And yet, they put up with so much more than we can ever imagine, to be peaceable, sociable, to gain the benefits from living with us humans.

I only hope that we can offer that same consideration to all our dogs, and people. It would be a good path to follow.



Karen Wild BA(Hons) Dip App Psych, Pawprint



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