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Nicholas Dodman

Personal Space

With animals in mind

With permission of Linda Breitman DVM
Source: With permission of Linda Breitman DVM

Recently I posted about hugging – how not everyone, including dogs, appreciates hugging all the time even from loved ones let alone any old Tom, Dick and Harry (or Jane). Hugging is a very personal interaction that when done by the right person at the right time can be endearing, comforting and a gesture of affection. Personal space comes into the equation, too. You can’t hug a dog without their personal space (some would say intimate space or distance). Personal space is that physical area surrounding a pet that is … well, very personal. Not everyone is welcome to enter it. Cats that allow other cats into their personal space are said to be mutually bonded (they are usually related). Dogs that willingly permit people to come extremely close to them or touch them are either tolerant or like that person. Uninvited invasion of personal space may even be repelled. A former professor at out veterinary school, a rather intense fellow, invaded other peoples’ personal space as a matter of course. In animated conversations, he would put his face so close to the person he was talking to that they would often feel compelled to discretely take a pace back. But then he would advance again so the distance between them remained the same. Often students and faculty would often find themselves literally with their back to the wall and nowhere else to go. It caused a somewhat uncomfortable feeling. The professor was, as Jerry Seinfeld called it, a close talker.

The personal space zone – is not the same size for all animals. For some the radius is small and for others much larger. Either way, it’s there as an invisible bubble surrounding a pet or person. Not realizing this, children and adults often invade a pet’s personal space uninvited. The consequences range from a shifty-eyed look or turning or moving away to defensive aggression on the part of the animal involved. Any part of the human anatomy can invade a pet’s personal space; it might be an unwelcome hand or limb or, all too frequently, a person’s face – just like the close talker. I see people walk up to dogs they don’t know and pet them as if they’re old friends. Most times there isn’t much of a reaction from the dog and no harm is done but petting strange dogs is like a game of Russian roulette. You never know when the dog will “go off”.

Some dogs whose relationship with their owner is not all that it should be will repel borders when their owner goes to pet them. For strangers, there’s the “first sniff my hand” approach to befriending a dog. Dogs don’t understand what this gesture means and there are dogs who erupt into aggression when someone’s hand is thrust into their personal space. What does this floating hand mean? When you think about it, the floating hand is a mystery to us, too. Imagine yourself confronted by a native in the jungles of New Guinea. He looks into your eyes and reaches an outstretched arm, fist clenched, to within inches of your face. What does it mean? Is this a pre-attack ritual? Maybe it’s time to run or defend yourself? I’m sure that is how some dogs perceive this supposed olive branch approach from a stranger.

A dog, or other animal, can bring its personal space bubble to you and invite familiarity -- but you can’t safely inject yourself into an animal’s personal space without an invitation. Too many people make this mistake, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Another rude incursion into a pet’s personal space involves kissing (perhaps this is where the term intimate distance is more appropriate). Imagine a child leaning in toward a dog to kiss the dog on the nose. This action often involves the child looking directly into the child’s eyes, leaning forward, going to hug the dog, and applying their lips to the dog’s muzzle. A direct look can be threatening to a dog, entering personal space is often unwelcome, arms around neck can be a dominant gesture, and applying lips to a muzzle is, in dog body language, a reprimand of sorts. Mom dogs briefly mouth their pups’ muzzle when disciplining them. Put it all together; a “low ranking” child leaning into a dog’s personal space, arms about to encircle the dog, coupled with a direct look into the dog’s eyes, and the final insult, the mouth on muzzle gesture, the kiss. The dog snaps or bites. Bad dog, people scream, he (nearly) bit her. Okay, so maybe the dog shouldn’t have acted that way (that’s an overly extreme response) but it’s really a case of a bad parent for not properly supervising their child and understanding their dog’s perception of such incursions. Here’s a simple rule: Two feet of space can save your child’s face (and maybe your own face).

So animals that have this precious zone of personal space as we do. I am willing to share my personal space with my family members but not the campus police (no disrespect intended, officers). I respect other peoples’ personal space, too. Unlike the other professor, I know when I am too close for another person’s comfort and will adjust accordingly. Personal space is the most proximal and intimate area around us. But there are other spaces or distances, too. For example, social space is that area inside which acquaintances are accepted and tolerated. For animals, and humans too if you read the news, territory is the area that we will defend against invaders. Home range is that area over which animals range but over which they have no particular claim. The human equivalent may be public space. All these spaces and distances are important in describing the actions of animals, including us, but none is as discrete or private as personal space. Always remember that invisible bubble when interacting with animals or your fellow man.

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About the Author

Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVA, DACVB, is the former director of the animal behavior clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and a pioneer in the study of OCD in dogs.