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Human Behavior Spooks Dogs

October is the time of year when lots of people purposely do things to spook themselves out. Some people really delight in a good fright, particularly when it is a planned and canned scare, such as voluntarily watching a horror film or walking through a haunted cornfield. We startle, but we can take comfort in the knowledge that the threat is not real and that once November hits, the atmosphere will turn from faux terror into one of comfort, coziness, and culinary gluttony.

Be mindful, please, as you walk your dog through streets adorned with monsters and the undead, because they don’t know about Halloween. Lawn decorations and costumes may really freak a dog out. And rightly so; they have no context for the fanfare, and are all, to some degree, designed to treat novelty, especially oddities meant to be provocative and creepy, as, well … odd and perhaps even threatening.

If your dog is environmentally sensitive or super vigilant in nature, perhaps try to get out for your walks in full daylight, as dusk, shadows, and low light can certainly exacerbate the spook effect of even the most mundane objects. Also, you may choose to bring along a favorite toy or super extra tasty morsels of a favorite doggy snack to lighten the mood, distract, and/or reward recovery from a fright.

Yet, while this time of year can be particularly challenging for dogs when it comes to the ways of their humans, in truth, there are plenty of things average people do every day that dogs find strange or annoying at the very least and downright frightening at worst. So perhaps October is a good time to talk about typical human behaviors that are spooky to dogs. (Note: the following is a list of generalizations, but these are common triggers for a varying degree of fear or aggressive responses in dogs. And before you say, “My dog doesn’t mind … xyz,” pause and think about it. Does your dog mind? Is your dog really OK with playing smooshy face with the kids? Remember, avoidance in and of itself is low-level protest, and canine “upset” may manifest with merely a sidelong glance or tucked posture.)

It’s the little things. Dogs are designed differently than people, and nowhere is this more apparent than in greeting and communication. For example, we love to make direct eye contact with dogs. It’s what we humans do to each other, and is generally a sign of affection and respect.

Well, dogs don’t see it that way. Really to them, direct anything is rude or aggressive in nature. Dogs generally approach each other from the side; they kind of sidle up to each other as if they are going to pass by at close range. From this mutual nose-to-tail parallel approach, each can give a good bum sniff to learn about the other and also show that their approach is not as threatening. Because a forward approach with direct eye contact in canine body lingo very often means, “I’m ready to rumble.” Yet, we do this all of the time to them. Imagine.

Speaking of forward approach, another human habit is to reach out, overhand, and pat or grab around a dog’s head or neck. This is the No. 1 way people get bitten by dogs.

Or we shove our hand in their face for smelling, which is really quiet silly when you realize that a dog’s sense of smell is about 40 times greater than ours and that they already knew what we smelled like from a block away.

We also lean over dogs quite a bit. Due to our bipedal stature when saying hello, we often loom over our four-legged friends in order to get better reach. Bending at the waist to say hello really gets into their space similar to the way a dog would stand over another as a form of control or intimidation. Yet we are just trying to be friendly.

When greeting a dog, it is better to just simply stand upright or bend at the knees slightly to make yourself slightly shorter. Stay in your own airspace and wait for the dog to approach you. If the dog approaches and comes into your space to say hello, or if it’s a teeny-tiny pooch you’re greeting, you may bend at the knees all of the way into a squat or knee to get to kissy face level.

Thank goodness dogs are very adaptable and forgiving, so much so that all of the other wonderful parts of our relationships tend to override their sense of insulted doggy dignity on a daily basis.

Most of them even come to enjoy our silly primate quirks and thank DOG, because I would hate to give up hugging my guys permanently. Happy Halloween! Now go outside and howl at the moon.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.

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Main article photo by: Monkey Business Images-istock