Spring is in the air, and that means more outings with your dog. More hikes, park visits, picnics, cafe time, errand-running with your dog as company, and hopefully more training, too. As the days grow longer, warmer, and brighter, it’s a good time to spring clean and dust off your mutt manners.
Brushing up on off-leash etiquette is a great place to start. It seems not only do many dog owners feel that their off-leash dog should socialize with every dog that passes by, but also it’s expected that dogs that are leashed must tolerate the advances of friendly off-leash dogs. Or worse, some people even believe that a dog that is less than thrilled with random encounters with unknown dogs should not be out in public spaces at all.
The sentiments above break my heart. Not every dog wants to play, sniff, or be sniffed, and that is OK. Some dogs are simply disinterested, some may be shy, others still might be defensive and protective of their personal space to the point of crankiness or aggression. Additionally, occasionally a dog is leashed because he or she is recovering from an illness or injury. Or, they might simply be in training and trying to focus on their lessons. Not every dog wants or needs to “socialize”.
Regardless, no matter the reason, all dogs that are managed and under control deserve to enjoy public places. I would also argue that dogs that are in the process of learning control need to practice in public spaces in order to master the skills necessary to enjoy walks and time out and about.
Problems occur when owners of friendly dogs don’t bother to also put control on their dogs, using their sociability as an excuse for poor manners.
Your dog is not exempt from the rules of canine etiquette just because he’s friendly.
Many owners of off-leash dogs will say that theirs is under verbal control. Please bear in mind, your dog is not under verbal control if she does not respond to your requests immediately, fully, and at least 80 percent of the time. It’s important for you to be able to call your dog to come when he or she is in motion, facing away from you, attending to something else. Can you call your dog away from a squirrel? A small child with a ball? A skateboarder? Another dog?
A good rule of thumb here is to pause before you give your dog a verbal cue and ask yourself, would you bet a hundred dollars on your dog responding promptly and reliably in this very moment? If not, you probably need to practice with some sort of management in place before cutting your pup loose in public.
It’s also helpful to examine the definition of what is means for a dog to be socialized. I find it most helpful to think of proper polite dog interactions in the same way we humans act when out in public. Most of us have a circle of friends that we know to varying degrees of intimacy, and these are the people we play with, hug, kiss, etc. When walking down the street, and passing a stranger, we might make brief eye contact or nod politely, but we do not change our gait or pace; we keep going, minding our own business. We do not get overly excited just because another human is heading in our direction. And we most certainly do not run up to every person we pass by and start pumping their arm up and down furiously in greeting. Nor do we jump on strangers’ backs and give them noogies. A dog running up, especially frontally, on another dog, is pretty much doing the equivalent this sort over-zealous greeting. It’s something that a puppy might try before he knows better, but other dogs shouldn’t be expected to tolerate puppy behavior from an adolescent or adult dog.
So as responsible dog owners who would like our dogs to be welcome in public and altercation-free, it’s our job to teach our dogs how to behave. We should teach them how to greet humans with an automatic sit for petting/greeting. We should teach them to walk by our side and keep somewhat focused on us, their human companion, rather than straining to interact with everyone who walks by.
For me, proper socialization consists of teaching a combination of skills: polite manners, acclimation to environment, impulse control, fluency in canine body language, and building resilience to occasional odd or startling occurrences.
When I walk down the street with my dogs, I expect them to mostly tune out other dogs, in the same way I do not attend most people, unless an introduction is made. I want my dogs to primarily pay attention to me when we are out and about, to explore the environment, and to respond with restraint and grace when we come upon other dogs. Their good behavior ensures that they get to go with me to many places, because they are polite and we keep to ourselves. A socially appropriate dog has a rich life indeed, and that is the ultimate reward at both ends of the leash.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: Photo by istock/Lakshmi3