Most of us who use social media to try and get across a point make use of memes. In our world today, bites of information are most easily digested and passed on, so memes are a useful way of getting people to take notice of important information.
The trouble is that memes can be misleading. Behaviour is a complex phenomenon and proper discussions on behaviour issues just don’t fit neatly into a couple of phrases. It is very easy to latch onto something that seems like a good idea on the surface, without considering what it really implies if taken at face value.
As a result of memes, we have concepts and ideas like:
1. The 3 second rule i.e. dogs should only meet for 3 seconds if on lead
2. Dogs should NEVER meet on lead
3. Any kind of arousal (play, excitement, games) is bad
4. Dogs shouldn’t be walked every day
The problem with these ideas is that, although there is SOME truth to them all in SOME contexts with SOME dogs, they DO NOT apply ALL the time with ALL dogs.
Yes, in general, keeping on lead greetings short can prevent problems from developing, but in some cases any contact at all might be a problem for a particular dog, while prolonged contact for two particular dogs may be completely harmless and lead to a mutually beneficial social encounter. Never meeting on lead would be best for dogs that feel defensive or frustrated on lead, but certainly doesn’t apply to other dogs (including my own) who really are quite relaxed meeting others on lead, whether the other dogs are loose or on lead themselves. Ruling out on-lead meetings might rule out all social contact for dogs in certain living situations. Of course, over-arousal that leads to stress and prevents a dog from being able to think clearly is not good, but arousal (excitement or anticipation) during play or sport where the dog is having fun and is still able to think is not detrimental, but beneficial. Without any physiological arousal ever, we would all be zombies! Yes, walks can be stressful for certain dogs and such dogs would benefit from having days of rest at home with other forms of mental stimulation, but if walks are enjoyable and relaxing for you and your dog, there is absolutely no harm in enjoying them every day. Some dogs really do benefit from daily exercise and don’t do well with a more sedentary lifestyle – it really does depend on the dog.
I saw a particularly troubling meme the other day along the lines of: “Dogs don’t need dog friends and they don’t need to say hello to other dogs”. I was quite shocked at this one, because the implications for taking this at face value are far-reaching for dogs and their wellbeing. Again, there is some truth to this idea: Dogs will not die if they have no social contact with their own kind and for various reasons (in some cases lack of socialisation, poor early environment, trauma or genetic predisposition) some dogs would prefer not to interact with dogs they don’t know, some will tolerate only one other dog that they live with and a few may tolerate none at all.
However, this does not apply to ALL dogs. Many, if not most, dogs have a strong social attraction to their own kind. Many do want to be able to say hello on occasion: to greet, sniff and go through the various rituals that dogs perform when they meet. Some will even want to play with other dogs. Dogs can derive great enjoyment from interacting with each other. My dogs definitely gain benefit from each other’s company and they definitely enjoy being able to meet other dogs occasionally. I also walk with a friend and colleague quite often and it is very clear that our dogs truly enjoy walking together. Although they don’t interact much on walks, the anticipation and excitement all round when they realise they are all going on the same walk (when we meet up at the car park) is very obvious. One of my friend’s dogs is not keen on strange dogs at all, but she loves being with my dogs and seems to have developed quite the crush on Cruz. Of course, they would survive if they did not have these interactions, but I do believe that because they enjoy them, they do contribute to their general wellbeing and enjoyment of life.
Does this mean that dogs that do not enjoy social contact with other dogs should be forced to interact for their own good? Absolutely not – if a dog doesn’t like other dogs then they should be allowed to avoid them and find enjoyment in other activities that enrich their lives instead. Does it mean that dogs that do enjoy social contact should always be allowed to approach every dog they meet or that this should take priority over the wellbeing of another dog that is not comfortable with social contact? No, of course not, but how dare we declare that all dogs don’t need social contact, simply because some cannot tolerate it and because negotiating the when, where and how of allowing dogs to meet takes a bit of careful thought and it might be easier to avoid the issue altogether.
We need to be careful about putting behaviour in a box. We need to be careful about putting dogs in a box. We cannot always sum everything up in a meme. Dogs are individuals and we always need to consider their individual needs.
Photo: My colleague's dog with Rosie and Cruz, who she is clearly totally comfy with, despite not being keen on dogs in general.