Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely young border collie I’ll call “Sami.” She was a beautiful example of a well-bred herding dog – quick, keenly intelligent, and fit and graceful at just over 12 months old.
Her owner brought her in for a consultation with me because she was having, as she put it, “some issues with Sami around strangers.” Things had seemed to be fine for the first few months after bringing Sami home – she attended a puppy kindergarten class with no problems, and did well with walks around the neighborhood and visitors to the house. She also loved to accompany her owner on off-leash hiking trips on the weekends with a group of friends.
As Sami grew, she became more independent and aloof. Although she loved to snuggle with her owner on the couch at home, and enjoyed rough-housing and playing ball with some hiking buddies that she knew well, she tended to avoid many of her owner’s friends on their weekend outings. This was causing some hurt feelings in the group, and her owner worried that Sami wasn’t “friendly” enough.
Anxious to remedy this problem, she resolved to do a better job of socializing her pup with as many people as possible. Armed with a pocket full of hot dog slices, she took Sami to the park every day after work – each passer-by they encountered was asked to say hello to Sami, pet her, and feed her a treat. They also made regular trips to Petsmart and their local hardware store, and Sami rode along in the car when her owner ran errands to the bank or pharmacy.
Everywhere they went, she asked people to stop and greet Sami – and they were happy to help! She was a strikingly gorgeous dog, and everyone was eager to pat her head and offer a treat.
By any conventional measure, Sami’s owner was doing a fantastic job of socializing her with strangers. Taking her lots of different places, meeting new people, and using treats to help make it a positive experience for her.
There was just one problem. She wasn’t getting any better.
In fact, much to her owner’s dismay, things had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Where before Sami had shown casual interest in other humans or ignored them altogether, she was now barking and lunging at people they encountered on their walks. Her owner attempted to address this behavior by telling her “NO!” whenever she growled (as instructed by a previous trainer) and holding her in place by the collar for people to pet her.
By the time of our first meeting, Sami had attempted to bite a person who was approaching her on two separate occasions. Her owner was at a loss. What more could she do?
When I first met Sami, I found her very interesting. She was not a “typical” reactive dog, in many ways – not overly anxious, no nervous panting or pacing in the training room. Small sounds and casual movements didn’t seem to faze her. She regarded me warily at first, sitting quietly on my folding chair against the wall, but relaxed once she saw that I was making no attempt to engage with her.
I tossed her pieces of string cheese while her owner and I talked, which she was happy to eat. Apart from that, she took her time exploring the room – poking her head inside the agility tunnels, investigating the smells by the reception desk with great interest, and sniffing for wayward treat crumbs on the floor. After a bit, apparently satisfied, she flopped down beside her owner’s feet and closed her eyes for a nap.
All in all, not the kind of behavior that I expect to see from most of my reactive patients.
With Sami snoozing peacefully on the floor between us, looking for all the world like a perfectly “normal” dog, I asked her owner a few questions.
First: “Do you think that Sami enjoys being petted?”
Her owner considered this for a moment. For all her diligent work – and she was an exceptionally kind, intelligent person who truly wanted the best for her dog – she had never thought much about this.
“Well – yes, I think she does. She’s a sweet girl, really! She snuggles with me all the time at home.”
I understand, I told her. How about away from home, with people she doesn’t know well? Did she ever actually approach strangers for petting, if the decision were left up to her?
Her owner was quiet. Thinking.
I called Sami’s name. She raised her head immediately, ears perked. I tossed her another bit of cheese, which she snatched eagerly from the floor.
Experimentally, I sat down on the floor several feet away from her. “Hey there, pretty girl! Come here!” I spread my hands invitingly, smiling at her.
She took in my antics with a kind of bored disdain, then turned her head away. A polite, but decisive, “no thank you.”
I returned to my chair.
People on the street thought she was beautiful, and wanted to pet her. Her owner wanted her to “be a nice dog” and say hello.
No one anyone had ever asked Sami what she wanted.
And this, more than anything else, was the problem.
Sami’s story is not as unusual as you might think. She was not a “mean” or aggressive dog – she simply preferred to be left alone, to get on with whatever she was doing. Just like humans, every dog is different! Some love petting and attention from strangers, while others would rather keep to themselves. Neither of these personality types is inherently better than the other – they just are.
In human terms, I’ve always found this intuitively easy to empathize with. An example:
My maternal grandfather was the friendliest, most social person I ever knew. He truly loved people – everything about them. He was interested in their stories, and loved to talk. Everywhere he went, he was sure to run into half a dozen people he knew – old friends, distant cousins, or half-remembered acquaintances. He was the kind of person who would strike up a friendly conversation with a stranger in line at the grocery store, and sincerely enjoy every word.
In the course of my career, I have met a number of Labs and golden retrievers who remind me very much of my grandfather. They amble happily through life with a friendly grin and a softly wagging tail, and love to say hello to every person who crosses their path. They give sloppy kisses, and roll over for belly rubs at every opportunity. Nothing makes them happier than to have a stranger approach and pet them. These are the therapy dogs of the world, and the easy family pets who love everyone they meet.
So – absolutely, these dogs (and people!) do exist. But what about the ones who aren’t like this?
I will be the first to admit, that I’m not much like my grandfather. I do enjoy interacting with people in certain situations, especially one-on-one or in small groups – but I am much more introverted than he was, and much quieter in social settings.
When I go to the store, I’m there to buy groceries. I don’t care much for small talk, and would never strike up a spontaneous chat with someone else in the produce section. I want to get the items on my list, and head for the check-out. If someone insisted that I stop and exchange pleasantries with every single person who crossed my path, I would quickly become irritable and impatient.
This is precisely how Sami felt, every time her owner took her out.
In the beginning, she was not particularly reactive or aggressive towards people she didn’t know – she simply didn’t have much interest in having them pet her. Truthfully, there are many dogs who don’t care overly much for being touched by strangers, even if they enjoy petting and snuggling at home with their loved ones. Again, just like us! 🙂
Unfortunately for Sami, her owner’s well-intentioned efforts to “socialize” her only made things worse. From her perspective, the world had suddenly become a much more unpleasant place!
Before, she could go for walks with her mom in peace, sniffing and exploring to her heart’s content, or enjoy their hiking trips running free off-leash without being bothered. But now, it seemed that everyone they saw was determined to invade her personal space – they walked up to her (ignoring her polite attempts to indicate that she didn’t want to say hello), stuck their hands in her face, and even insisted on touching her. Small wonder that she became increasingly suspicious of strangers, and began to bark and lunge when she saw them – she had tried for a long time to ask people more politely to leave her alone, but no one was listening.
Scolding her for this, unfortunately, only made her more frustrated and upset. She eventually progressed to snapping, and even biting, when people tried to pet her because she had no other options. Every other attempt she had made to communicate had been misinterpreted or ignored.
Sami didn’t have any desire to harm anyone, and was otherwise a perfectly lovely dog. She just wanted what we all want – to be respected, when she said “no.”
As owners, it can be hard to wrap our minds around this at first – particularly with our own pets!
For better or worse, people expect “nice dogs” to be friendly and eager to interact with everyone they meet. When we take our dogs for walks or have them in public places, we face a tremendous amount of social pressure to allow people to pet them. Well-meaning strangers are often insistent about saying hello, and may not read your dog’s body language well enough to understand when their advances are unwelcome.
This puts the onus on you, to recognize when your dog is uncomfortable. If a passer-by asks to pet her, watch her reaction before you agree. If she wags her tail and moves forward with loose, relaxed body language, this is a good indication that she would like to say hi. If she turns her head away, looks tense or uncertain, or tries to hide behind you, she’s saying no – respect her choice, and move on.
Fortunately for Sami, her owner eagerly embraced this new approach after our discussion. We made the following changes to her training plan:
– Sami did not have to say hello to any strangers, or allow them to pet her, unless she initiated the interaction by approaching them first. We also discussed how to watch her body language to make sure that she was relaxed and happy when she did this – if there was any tension or uncertainty, her owner would call her name, give a treat for turning back to her, and move away.
– Since she was now barking and lunging at people passing on the street, we addressed this with the same general plan that we use for most leash reactivity issues – see my post about Louie, here, for more details on this. Essentially, we used a verbal marker (“yes!”) followed by a treat every time she looked at a person. This taught her that seeing a stranger = yummy treats, so that before long she was looking happily at her owner for a reward each time a person walked by, rather than barking.
– No punishment of any kind (including verbal corrections) for growling, barking, or otherwise indicating that she was uncomfortable. These are communication signals to be heeded, rather than “misbehavior” to be corrected. Our goal was to manage Sami well enough to prevent her from feeling the need to growl or bark – but if this happened, her owner was instructed to simply move away from whatever was making her upset, then praise and reward as soon as she was far enough away to be calm.
Within a few weeks, Sami was doing much better on her walks – no longer lunging and barking at everyone she saw. She was also enjoying her off-leash hiking trips again, since her owner had asked her friends to simply leave her alone unless she approached them voluntarily. People walking directly towards her when she is on-leash are still challenging, likely because this scenario has so often predicted an unwanted interaction in the past – so we are slowly working to change this.
Once she feels safe in this situation, which may take several more weeks or months of practice, she may eventually decide that she enjoys saying hello to people in certain contexts. She may even find that a little petting is nice, every now and then.
And if she doesn’t, that’s okay too. She’s a lovely dog either way.
Just as it should be, the choice is hers.