I have written this post with a fair amount of trepidation as to the response it may provoke, but after a lot of thought I feel that this discussion needs to take place, before it is too late. I have a growing sense of unease around the trend that is gaining popularity - the “Give dogs their space” movement.
Now, this idea in itself is a very good one - I wholeheartedly support the notion of giving dogs more choice and space, so that their lives with us are as comfortable and stress-free as possible and so that they are not placed in situations that may lead to undesirable behaviour. However, I do have a concern that, as with any good thing, this idea can be taken to extremes by sectors of “dogdom” who do not fully grasp the big picture and that ultimately it could become detrimental to the relationship we have with dogs and the future of dogs in our society in the long run. I will try to explain:
The very thing that makes a dog a suitable companion for humans, is the fact that the domestication process selected against fear and aggression towards people. In order to be able to live with humans safely, dogs had to develop a high tolerance for human behaviour. Dogs that were intolerant of human behaviour and displayed dangerous aggressive tendencies were removed from the gene pool. Domestic dogs have also been selected to have a high level of social attraction to human beings – we observe that healthy puppies naturally want to engage with people and relationships with people even seem to be more important to most dogs than relationships with other canines (see https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201201/do-dogs-love-people-more-they-love-other-dogs)
As humans are pretty thick a lot of the time, the dog-human relationship does realistically require a certain level of tolerance on behalf of dogs. It requires that when humans make mistakes in their interactions with dogs (which we will always do, because we do not speak dog and we will never get everything 100% right), the consequences are not too dire.
I can think of an instance from my childhood which is a good example:
When I was about 10 years old, I was hiking with my parents and our young German Shepherd. We met a couple we knew with their older GSD. I wanted to say hello and put my hand out to the other dog, who was on lead and a little stressed by the presence of our own dog, and she snapped at me. The adults were chatting and didn’t see what I was doing until it happened. My parents seemed to think I had learned an important lesson and were not upset with the other dog. It was a situation that would have been avoided if I knew better and the adults were paying more attention. But it did happen – sometimes these things do, because we aren’t perfect and we slip up. But despite the fact that it happened, it was not a disaster. It was not a disaster because the dog did not grab, bite and shake me or bite me multiple times. The dog simply snapped at me and nipped my finger. Warning given and lesson learned with a small nick and no further damage. This is normal dog behaviour. This is acceptable behaviour for dogs living with people. Ripping people to pieces and sticking them in hospital is not. Being unable to tolerate the proximity of any person other than the owner is not. Having owners who are too afraid to handle, interact or disturb their dogs in any way for fear of the consequences is not.
Why am I saying all of this? I am saying this because I have a growing concern that we have moved or are in the process of moving the goalposts for normal dog behaviour. It is increasingly common to come across dogs that cannot be around other people and dogs at all. It is increasingly common to encounter owners who are scared of their dogs in some way. It is increasingly common for people to fight to save the lives of dogs who have maimed or killed people. In fact, I was astounded to read a post last year in which someone described how they had been pinned to the wall in their home by a dog they had taken on for rehabilitation after the dog had put the previous owner in hospital with severe injuries. This person was lauded as a hero for saving this dog. Am I the only one who thinks that this is insane? More and more people will do anything to save EVERY dog, no matter how dangerous the dog has proved to be. Unfortunately, when taken to extremes, the trend of giving dogs space and never “interfering” with them, helps to normalise the idea that dogs are LIKELY to be aggressive when approached by people or interacted with and so is potentially helping to hide a lot of dysfunctional canine behaviour. It is one thing to teach people to be respectful towards dogs and avoid harassing them unnecessarily, but it is quite another to expect everyone to avoid going anywhere near any dog, in case it sends them to hospital.
Sadly, I believe that the acceptance of dangerous or socially dysfunctional behaviour which leads to the extreme view that dogs should be kept away from all social encounters at all times, is linked to the push for rescue which has become so overwhelmingly strong in the last decade. Let me be very clear – we DO need rescue organisations and the desire to rescue dogs is inherently GOOD. However, the rescue movement has been taken to extremes that involve labelling anyone who buys a dog from a breeder as downright immoral and anyone who advocates euthanasia of a dog with dangerous behavioural/social/emotional problems as evil. The result is that we have a lot of dogs being re-homed inappropriately – dogs whose behaviour problems are swept under the carpet and never addressed. Giving these dogs space is not optional, it is mandatory – their behaviour forces their owners to avoid all social encounters. Unfortunately, I believe that the increasing amount of dog owners sitting in this position, is lending credence to the idea that social isolation is normal and even desirable.
But I honestly believe that it is NOT normal and neither is it desirable. Dogs are companion animals. They should be able to be out and about in public places. They should be able to handle passing other people and dogs. They should be able to handle a person stopping to chat to their owner. Most dogs should even be able to cope with the odd person who does put their hand out towards them, without feeling threatened or trying to do damage to that person. Will all dogs be able to handle these things? No, of course there will be dogs that due to trauma, lack of socialisation or poor genetics will be afraid and defensive in “normal” situations. Should all dogs with social problems be removed from society? Of course not – but neither should we start believing that this is the new and acceptable norm. We should not stop striving to have dogs that are socially confident, well-adjusted and tolerant. We should not move the goal posts and start saying that it is normal for dog owners to have to avoid all encounters with other people and other dogs at all times.
We also have to stop normalising extreme forms of aggression. A dog should give warnings when they are not comfortable. Freezing, calming signals, avoidance, growling, snapping, inhibited biting and even bite and release are “normal” defensive behaviours. Grabbing, biting, shaking, tearing and continuing to bite, shake and tear with no inclination to stop, is NOT normal defensive behaviour. Yes, there are many incidents where numerous warnings are ignored (or even punished out of the dog) and serious bites come after a long period of the dog trying everything else to get away or let the person know they are uncomfortable, but we cannot make excuses for dogs that go straight to grab, shake & tear (repeatedly) at the drop of a hat. Any dog of any breed that engages in such behaviour does NOT meet the norms for behaviour that a domestic dog requires to live safely with us.
Ideas in dog training often seem to swing from one extreme to the next – one movement arises out of opposition to another movement which has become problematic. So, in this case, the current idea of “just leave dogs alone and stop interfering with them”, I would imagine has arisen out of the “socialise dogs to within an inch of their lives” movement, which also started from a good place and with good intentions. We know how important early socialisation is for puppies. We know that it sets them up to be healthy and well-adjusted adults. We know that they need to have positive encounters with people, other animals and “stuff” they will encounter later in life, in order not to become fearful and defensive adults. The problem is that the vital concept of socialisation has been totally misunderstood by many. As a result, we have people flooding rather than socialising their puppies and inflicting the most awful experiences on their adult dogs who are no longer even in the socialisation period! (For more information on what socialisation is and is not, see: https://www.tarynblyth.co.za/single-post/2018/03/07/When-socialisation-is-NOT-socialisation)
It is only natural, that in response to the “over-socialisation trend”, trainers and behaviourists have kicked back with a movement to try and get people to stop forcing their dogs into unpleasant social encounters. We absolutely DO need to do that. We DO need to stop expecting all dogs to want to be smothered by all people and all other dogs. We DO need to teach people that walking up and hugging or kissing a strange dog is NOT okay! (You won’t believe how many people actually do this!). We DO need to teach children not to go up to random dogs – of course - and we DO need to teach them to respect the dogs in their own homes and understand that what they enjoy, the dog might not enjoy.
BUT – we should simultaneously strive for breeding, selection, socialisation and training practises that help dogs to be as stable, tolerant and confident as they possibly can be in our world – the world in which they live and on which their future depends. Dogs are not wild animals. They are domestic animals. They are social animals and they are human companions – they need to be safe to be around in the majority of normal circumstances.
Earlier this week, we were swimming with our dogs at a popular recreational spot. We noticed a woman with a dog a little away from us. She decided to swim across the reservoir and left her dog on its own at the water’s edge. Further away was a family with young kids – this dog, feeling obviously at a loss, went racing down to the family with a big stick and dropped it for the children to throw. Kids and dog had an absolute ball for the next 15 minutes while the owner carelessly did her own thing. Irresponsible? Absolutely! Would I ever put my dogs in that situation? Not in a million years! Would I advise a client that this is okay? Never! But I am glad that I still live in a world where the average family has nothing to fear from the average dog they encounter in this sort of situation. I am glad that I still live in a world where the average dog does not pose a threat when the humans around it behave like idiots. I am glad that there are still dogs that see kids as a great opportunity to play and have fun. I am glad that many dogs still do have positive associations with people. I am also glad that many dogs still enjoy meeting, interacting and having fun with other dogs.
While I will always strive to educate dog owners to be responsible and cognisant of their dogs’ wellbeing and to avoid putting them in uncomfortable situations, I strongly believe that wrapping dogs in cotton wool and avoiding all social interactions is not the answer. Let’s prepare dogs, as far as we can, to cope with everything and everyone in our world, rather than try to keep them apart from it. Let’s not push back against inappropriate socialisation to the point where we throw healthy socialisation out the window.