People Should Stop Saying, "Don't Worry, My Dog's Just Fine"

All too often I hear people wrongly say my dog won't do something or never has.

Posted Dec 22, 2018

A few weeks ago, a friend, I'll call her Karen, told me a story about a dog who ran right up to her, growled softly, and then began to jump on her, ostensibly, according to the dog's human, to say "Hello." When Karen got upset, the dog's human said, "Don't worry, he's fine and won't do anything." Karen loves dogs, but as this was all happening, her dog, Romeo, got nervous and began to growl softly and move between her and the other dog. Clearly, Romeo was uneasy, and this made Karen uneasy; and when the offending dog's human went on to say, "He's really okay," Karen responded, "I trust my dog more than you." Good for her. 

This conversation with Karen, as Romeo patiently waited for us to stop talking, got me to think once again about the countless hours I spend watching dogs interact with other dogs and humans, and listening to humans talk about their canine companions. I thought about all of the claims I've heard, including, "My dog will never do that," "My dog never did that," "My dog's fine, just curious," "He's not really being aggressive," or "Oh, don't worry, it's okay." I began to wonder: How well do humans really know their dogs in the countless situations in which they find themselves? 

My own experiences when a strange dog runs up and tries to jump on me or shove his or her nose into my groin is that people are not all that knowledgable about their dog in this situation. This is not a criticism, because it's hard to predict what a dog will do, especially when they're all riled up. I don't like it when this happens, but I'm more open to it when the dog is one with whom I'm familiar, and one who knows that when I softly say something like, "No," or "Please don't do this," they'll stop. They're not necessarily being a "bad dog," and simply may just be expressing a lack of having been taught proper etiquette by their human. I've met "repeat dog offenders" whose humans — also repeat offenders — shrug off their dog's behavior and their own irresponsibility. 

What do we know about when dogs intrude into humans' personal space?

To gain a better handle on how well people know their dogs in situations when the dog is likely to intrude into a human's personal space, I looked at some data I previously collected and then went and gathered some more. The bottom line is that in 35 situations, the people were wrong 26 times (74.3 percent). This included three people who were "helicopter humans," who stopped their dog from doing just about everything, especially when they were having fun and playing or rough-housing with their canine buddies, and on occasion when they were bugging other people. (See "For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise.") I wasn't surprised by what these few data indicate, because my impression from my own experiences and watching those involving other people was that people really don't know what their dog will do, especially when the dog is wired, or engaged in a zoomie and randomly running up to other dogs and people and trying to do things that a few or many of the dogs and most people don't like. (See "It's OK For Dogs to Engage in Zoomies and Enjoy FRAPs.") 

I fully realize that a sample of 35 people isn't large, but when I asked some others if they'd ever had an encounter with a dog who was doing something that according to their human "never happened before" or "was very rare," 20 out of 20 said they had. So, I feel comfortable in hypothesizing that more — perhaps a lot more — than 50 percent of humans can't predict what their dog will do, especially when they're excited, and they encounter a human. 

Creative Commons
Dog crotch sniffing
Source: Creative Commons

While it's clear that we need more detailed research on how well humans know their dogs, I go back to how Karen responded by saying, "I trust my dog more than you," when someone said to her, "Don't worry, he's fine and won't do anything," and then "He's really okay," after her dog tried to jump on Karen while softly growling. Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn't, but the dog's human should have had the decency to apologize politely and display some responsibility for her dog's behavior. She didn't. In fact, Karen said the woman walked away dismayed that she and her dog were so upset.

Karen shrugged it all off, but she was unnerved by what had happened. However, some people don't let it go when their personal space is violated by a dog. Psychology Today writer and author Dr. Stanley Coren writes about a case where a Connecticut woman brought a sexual harassment suit against a dog who sniffed her crotch. Ultimately, a judge dismissed the case, noting, “Impoliteness on the part of a dog does not constitute sexual harassment on the part of the owner.” (For more discussion, see his essay "Why Do Dogs Like to Sniff Crotches?" and "Dog Behavior and Etiquette: Yes, No, Maybe, Do's and Don't's.")

Proper etiquette means that erring on the side of caution is the right thing to do and can be a win-win for all.

Clearly, in some situations, it's best to stop dogs from doing such things as jumping on humans, sniffing their butts or groins, humping their legs, slobbering on them, or growling at them, even softly.

Putting the time into learning to understand a dog is a win-win for them and their and other humans. The best and most respectful relationships have to work for all parties, and it's essential to pay attention to what we know and don't know about the behavior of our canine companions, and also pay attention to the fact that each and every dog is a unique individual. What works for one dog might not work for another dog. 

Even if someone is fluent in dog and dog literate and "knows" their dog, nothing is lost by teaching a dog not to do certain things. Of course, it's impossible to predict what dogs or other animals will do all of the time, so erring on the side of caution can be a win-win for all — the dog and their and other humans. 

The lack of detail about some common dog behaviors is what makes studying them so exciting. Stay tuned for further discussions of the behavior of a fascinating nonhuman with whom many humans choose to share their homes and their hearts — and on occasion, most unwillingly, their bodies.  

Facebook image: Sjale/Shutterstock

References

Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018. 

Bekoff, Marc and Pierce, Jessica. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. Novato, California, New World Library, 2019.