If I could design the perfect job for me, it would be Executive Dog Cuddler. Those close interactions are so joyful – gazing lovingly into one another’s eyes, finding those favorite petting spots, and feeling the dog lean in, clearly indicating she’s enjoying it, too. It’s a delicious oxytocin bath for both of us!
The reality, however, is often quite different than the scenario above. Many dogs do NOT welcome physical interactions, especially from strangers. Because I’m good at reading dog body language, I quickly see when a dog isn’t interested in having such an interaction, well before I approach or touch them. I’m careful not to foist my friendly advances on them when they're clearly saying no thank you. But other dog lovers may not pick up the sometimes subtle signs, and though their intentions are friendly and loving, the dog may find the interaction very unpleasant.
The results can range from mild to serious. In mild cases, the dog simply endures the physical interaction, and then shakes herself off and breathes a sigh of relief when it’s over. Another dog will be more disturbed by the interaction and her discomfort around people will be exacerbated over time. Another dog will emit a variety of signals to telegraph her growing discomfort, and if all the subtler signals are ignored, may escalate to a growl or even a bite.
Sadly, these situations are often described as the dog biting “out of nowhere.” In reality, the dog was signaling her discomfort like crazy, but the human didn’t know how to read the body language.
Here is a link to a really nice video that explains how to do a petting consent test with a dog. It points out the typical signals dogs display when they either welcome or reject physical contact. This should be required viewing for adults and children alike. Not only is it respectful to the dog, but it also increases safety for everyone.
If you think about it, why should dogs – especially those unknown to us – have to endure our advances and physical contact if it doesn’t feel good to them? Do we welcome strangers running up to gush over us and fondle our bodies? Maybe certain, select people, but all strangers? I think not! Heck, we may find these affectionate advances aversive even from family members. So why should our dogs endure unwelcome advances? The correct answer is, they shouldn’t.
But here’s some good news for all you oxytocin-craving cuddle junkies out there: we can increase our dogs’ comfort with physical interactions through training. Years ago, I had a miniature pinscher who loathed cuddling, which was in sharp contrast to my intense longing to hold her close. So I spent the time to train her to enjoy it, using what was important to her, food.
I broke down the goal behavior -- holding her in my arms -- into small steps, pairing each approximation with treats. Over time, she came to truly enjoy these interactions and no longer required treats. We both were happy with the results.
So here’s my advice to you:
Really, truly ASK a dog before you foist your friendly intentions on her
Monitor the dog’s behavior throughout the interaction to be sure it remains a positive experience
Be your own dog’s advocate and don’t let other people physically interact with her if she doesn’t welcome it
Spot areas of concern and actively teach your dog to be more comfortable with physical contact
Dogs everywhere will thank you for your respectful behavior!
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, puppy matchmaking services, and pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies. She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120
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