When it comes to dogs, owners sometimes have tunnel vision, seeing the world only from the perspective of their own dog or their own dog-training experience. This often leads to owners tossing out sentences that, in an ideal world, would never be uttered. Yet these words are clues to a bigger issue, or a situation that’s about to become an issue, including not fully understanding dog behavior, social cues, body language, or simply good manners toward other dogs and dog owners.
Training yourself is the the most productive strategy for improving the behavior of your dog — as well as other dogs that your dog socializes with — because you are such a big influencer of behavior, even when you don’t realize you’re influencing your dog’s actions.
Dr. Patricia McConnell writes in her book “The Other End of the Leash-Why we do What we do around dogs”, “Focusing on the behavior at our end of the leash isn’t a new concept in dog training. Most professional dog trainers actually spend very little time working with other people’s dogs; most of our time is spent training humans. Take it from me, we’re not the easiest species on the block to train.”
But it doesn’t have to feel daunting. Training yourself can become easier if you’re truly seeing your thought process about your own dog and dogs you pass on the street. Once you recognize how you think about them, you can more easily influence what you think about them. And once you do that, better interactions will follow.
All dog owners have been guilty of saying at least one, if not several of the phrases below. Of course none of us are perfect, and “should never” is basically an impossible aspiration. But if you catch yourself saying one of the phrases below, it might be time to ask yourself why you’re saying it and use it as a training opportunity to fine-tune how you’re really viewing your dog and his behaviors. Here are 11 examples of things dog owners often say that should spark wariness about what’s really going on.
“It’s okay, my dog is friendly.”
This is often said by an owner whose dog is approaching (or charging up to) another dog or person. The owner is perhaps trying to calm potential fears that their dog has negative intentions, because maybe that other owner or dog looks nervous. Even worse, the owner uttering this phrase may not have any control whatsoever over how their dog is approaching others and is just hoping that everything goes well. If you need to say this phrase, then it’s possible you’re letting your dog get away with some bad, potentially dangerous manners.
This is also a common response from an owner whose dog is approaching another dog/human pair that is actually asking to maintain some distance. Frankly, it doesn’t matter if your dog is friendly or not — if someone asks for space, it’s for a good reason. Their dog might be fearful, reactive, injured, in training, or simply not want anything to do with your dog.
Just because your dog is “friendly” doesn’t mean he automatically has permission to approach another dog or a person, nor should his unlikeliness to bite or pick a fight be an excuse for poor manners. If you find yourself assuring people that your dog is friendly, then it may be a good opportunity to look at the bigger picture about what exactly is happening and if your dog is being, well, far too friendly.
“Oh, my dog would never bite.”
Famous last words — and words every UPS delivery person hates to hear because they are filled with naive confidence. Your dog might be the world’s most goofy, loving dog but to quote a favorite song, “Never say never.” (The irony of saying this in light of the title of this article isn’t lost on me.) In fact, saying your dog would never do something is a red flag signaling misunderstanding, or worse, denial, about what your dog thinks or feels about the world and how that might change with age, illness, new family members or other experiences. But assuming your dog would never bite is perhaps the most dangerous assumption to make, since it makes you lax about monitoring interactions that could have serious consequences.
If your dog has a mouth and any sense of what is going on in the world around her, she can and just might bite if pushed. It’s better to know this fact and respect your dog’s capabilities, comfort zones and boundaries just in case, than act as if the scenario could never pop up.
“It’s not my dog’s fault.”
Maybe it isn’t, but maybe it is. On the one hand, there are a lot of dogs that get the blame for reacting to the instigation of another dog. The biggest of the dogs, or the loudest, or the one of a certain breed, or the one that ends up on the winning end often gets blamed. However, there is a large portion of the dog-owning population who say, “It wasn’t my dog’s fault” and they are totally, completely, and utterly wrong. Not only wrong, but as much at fault as their dog who indeed started the altercation.
This phrase is uttered too often by people who have little experience reading dog body language, and aren’t interpreting, or simply aren’t paying attention to, the signals their dog is sending out into the world. Small dog owners are an easy example; because the dog is small, many owners think it’s acceptable — or worse, cute — when their dog stares at, postures at, growls at, or lunges at other nearby dogs. Their dog is small and can’t do a whole lot of damage (or is easy to drag by the leash or pick up off the ground) when they act out. Sadly, though, it is indeed this dog’s fault when something happens, even though they might be the smallest of the suspects.
So if your dog tends to be in the middle of problems, start paying attention. It might be your dog that is drawing in the trouble.
“Let them work it out themselves.”
This is one of the worst things you can hear (or do) in a social situation with dogs, especially at a dog park. There is an over-reliance on the notion that dogs have a built-in pack savvy that they’ll revert to when they’re among other dogs, so humans don’t need to or shouldn’t step in to manage social interactions. But many expert dog trainers and behaviorists will point out that a group of new dogs meeting at a dog park isn’t a pack in the true sense of the word. Further, individual dogs might not know how to give or receive cues from each other to keep a situation from escalating. So as the social tension builds, the humans simply standing by creates a recipe for a fight or psychological trauma.
Some dogs are bullies, some are fearful, some aren’t so great at picking up the cut-it-out cues from others or just ignore them, some have overactive play or prey drives, some are resource-protective. Putting dogs with varying personalities together and letting them “work it out” is like taking the teacher out of a third-grade classroom and letting the kids figure it out among themselves. It’s probably going to get chaotic, and someone is going to get hurt.
Letting dogs figure things out among themselves is important, but to an extent. Professional dog trainer Marcia Murray-Stoof points out, “Socialization is the process of a dog teaching another dog about proper behavior. So yes, a little education here and there about bite inhibition or being too bossy is a critical part of canine socialization. But any escalation beyond that, where you let dogs sort it out, teaches your dog two things. First is, ‘I can’t rely on my human to protect me or standup for me.’ And second is one of these two lessons: ‘Fighting works (so I’ll do it again and again),’ or ‘I hate other dogs, they are scary.’ Any of those messages are the exact opposite of why you wanted your dog to socialize with other dogs in the first place.”
Leaving aside the possibility of a serious fight, when a situation escalates and an owner doesn’t step in, there is an erosion of the trust and confidence the dog has in his owner which can lead to other behavior problems. Responsible dog owners don’t let dogs “work it out themselves” — rather, they help their dogs have positive social interactions by managing the play situation, making sure all is calm and not letting things escalate. And if things do escalate, they step in to stop it.
“There was no warning.”
There’s always warning. You just didn’t see it.
“Communication is a critical ingredient in any relationship, yet as our human interactions show, even between two members of the same species speaking the same language, this is not necessarily an easy matter,” writes Suzanne Clothier
writes in “bones Would Rain from The Sky”: Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs
“. She explains, “The language of Dog is not unlike our own human language. It is filled with nuance and subtleties, the sum of which — examined within a given context — provide a total communication. Like our dogs, we can communicate volumes without uttering a word, though doing so with great clarity requires awareness of our own bodies and the subtle meanings behind gestures.”
Dogs have an intricate though sometimes subtle body language through which they tell you and other dogs everything they’re thinking or feeling. Sometimes dogs give warning after warning after warning before finally lashing out, and the human just didn’t know what the dog was saying or that the dog was communicating at all.
When someone’s dog is attacked at a dog park by another dog and says, “There was no warning,” what that person is really saying is, “I wasn’t paying enough attention or didn’t know enough to see the signals my dog and the other dog were sending each other and step in before things escalated.” Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t see it. Dog body language can be hard to read and “conversations” can happen lightning fast. But don’t say there was no warning. Instead, ask how you missed the warning and how you might catch it next time.
“He just wants to play.”
This might be the case if your dog is play bowing to another dog, enticing another dog into a game of chase with a toy or fake-bolting. But it could also be a lot more complicated than that. This phrase is often said by owners whose dogs are being overly exuberant, being a bully, or are otherwise pushing the boundaries of acceptable social behavior. And often, the person saying this doesn’t know enough about dog body language and social cues to understand when another dog is getting fed up with their own dog’s antics or, equally as problematic, their dog is not being playful at all.
Perhaps the dog who “wants to play” is showing nervousness about the pecking order and is being overly submissive by face licking another dog and rolling over in a submissive posture. Perhaps the dog who “wants to play” is being a bully by nipping, barking at, or standing on another dog when their “play” partner is showing signs of frustration or fear.
Saying that a dog just wants to play too often gives an excuse for bad or potentially dangerous social behavior. If an owner is constantly pawning off their dog’s annoying, mean or awkward behavior as trying to be playful then it might be time to study up on canine body language and find out what’s really going on.
“Dogs love me.”
Cue the eyeroll from every person who owns a dog that doesn’t like other humans.
Most dogs might love you, but not all dogs do. It’s just a statistical reality. Even if most dogs seem to think you’re made of tennis balls and treats, some dogs won’t love you. Not even if you really were made of tennis balls and treats. So, if someone asks you to keep your distance from their dog, please, for the love of DINOS, don’t respond with this phrase. (A DINOS is a dog in need of space, and an owner knows best when their dog will be uncomfortable with you, no matter how convinced you are of your lovability.)
By assuming that a dog will appreciate your approach, you’re opening yourself up to real danger for a bite. And even if a dog doesn’t bite you, you may be causing psychological distress to a dog that doesn’t want you so close — distress that could potentially lead to a bite later on down the road when the dog feels it needs to protect itself from people who come charging up saying, “Dogs love me.”
“My dog is great with kids.”
All kids? All the time? Or kids of a certain age or behavior? Kids act differently at different ages, and your dog who might be amazing with an infant may be less confident or patient with a bumbling, tumbling toddler with erratic, unpredictable movements. Or your dog who is tolerant of slower toddlers might have an over-stimulated prey drive when 7- or 8-year-olds are yelling, running around and jumping over furniture. Or your dog who is a saint with your kids and even the neighborhood kids might not be great when a new child comes along and joins the group; you just don’t know until the situation pops up.
Yes, your dog might be great with kids. And if that’s the case, then wonderful and three cheers for your dog! We all want to have Lassies and Old Yellers and Good Dog Carls. But a dog who is great with all kids, all the time is rare. What family dogs are good at is having a high tolerance for most children, which is quite different from being a perfect playmate or nanny. It leaves the possibility open of your dog being pushed past their patience limits or comfort zones. So think carefully on the various boundaries you may need to put on this statement before you say this.
“He’s a rescue so [insert excuse for behavior here].”
Some rescued dogs come from horrific pasts. They may have been saved from serious neglect or abuse, or have spent time as a stray on the street. Because of this, sometimes their past experiences are the reason why they have certain behavior issues. But as one of my high school teachers used to say, there is always a reason but seldom an excuse. Not all adopted dogs come with dark pasts, and not all adopted dogs have behaviors that can be waved away or excused because of previous experiences.
Personality traits like shyness, timidity and mistrust are sometimes just that: personality traits. And behavior issues like poor manners with other dogs, reactivity, or barking at strangers can’t always be attributed to the mysterious past of your dog. Sometimes they’re simply learned behaviors that need training to improve. If you’ve adopted a rescued dog, then you earn a big high-five! But only if you aren’t dramatizing the dog’s status as adopted and letting poor behavior sneak by.
“He’s doing that to try and be dominant.”
The whole “dominant dog” thing has frankly gotten out of control. The word is flung around as a way to explain practically any misbehavior from jumping on a person to digging through the trash to urinating on the bedspread. If your dog jumps on you or crawls on you when you’re sitting on the floor, it’s more likely that it’s out of overexuberance and lack of solid training than because he’s trying to show you who is boss. Even resource protection isn’t necessarily a “dominance” issue — a dog just doesn’t want to lose what he considers valuable, like a certain toy or a bowl of food. The fear and anxiety about that loss is as much a possible cause for a growl as a drive to be the leader of the pack. Assertiveness, confidence, a lack of confidence, pain or illness, excitement, exuberance, fear, mistrust, a lack of training … there are far more accurate ways of interpreting a dog’s actions than the tired old line of “trying to be dominant.”
McConnell writes, “Understanding social status is particularly important because misunderstanding what ‘dominance’ means has led to appallingly abusive behavior. So much old-fashioned obedience training could be summarized as, ‘Do it because I told you to, and if you don’t, I’ll hurt you.’ The assumption seemed to be that dogs should do what we say because we told them to; after all, we’re the humans and they’re the dogs, and surely humans have more social status than dogs.” However, as McConnell goes on to point out, social status isn’t all about dominance; it is a far more complex concept than one member of the family “pack” being the leader.
Whittling everything down to a dominance problem means losing sight of the complexity of social dynamics and creates blind spots for understanding behaviors. Don’t let the real reason for behaviors, and therefore appropriate and effective solutions for training, get ignored because the word “dominance” springs to mind ahead of anything else.
“He knows better than that.”
Does he? Or does your dog know a certain way to behave only in a certain context? Dogs can have a hard time translating behaviors learned in one place, like your living room, to another place, like inside a pet store or a dog park where smells, sights, people and energy levels are completely different. A dog that has been taught to sit politely at your front door before exiting probably won’t translate that to sitting politely in front of any door before exiting, unless you’ve gone through that exercise at tons of different doors and been consistent about it. It even goes for a different side of your own body; if you’ve taught a dog to sit on your left side but never practiced on your right side, then getting that dog to sit on your right side will take a little more time.
To get a certain behavior from a dog consistently despite where you are or the specifics of what you’re asking takes training the dog for that behavior in a wide variety of settings, under a wide variety of conditions, so your dog knows that “sit” doesn’t just mean “that movement I do right before I’m about to get a leash put on” but rather means “put my rump on the ground no matter where I am or what is happening and keep it there until told otherwise.” So before you get upset with your dog because “he knows better” or “he knows how to do that,” take a look at the training history and ask, does he really?