Friday, May 2, 2008

A lesson in canine greetings

And now a discussion in butt sniffing 101.

Check out the following e-mail I received. (heavily edited) This is why I wish ALL trainers were required to take course in basic dog behavior.

" I was having a conversation with my neighbor last night with the Golden puppy and she was talking about a recent group class discussion with Trainer X. Since I wasn't actually there for the discussion, I of course don't know the actual context. She may very well have simply misunderstood what Trainer X was saying. But I thought I'd run it by you and see if you have any thoughts. The discussion had to do with dogs and butt sniffing. Trainer X's position seemed to be that when dogs sniff each other's hind quarters, there is bound to be trouble - that it is an aggressive behavior by dogs who have not been properly trained, and that a fight is bound to ensue. He compared it to a couple going out to dinner and the man going over to sniff other women. "

Oh good grief! Honestly it makes my head feel like exploding. That is just plain bad information. Here is the real story on dog greetings and butt sniffing.

A proper dog greeting is face to face briefly and then they sniff each others butt or genital area. This gives each dog information about the other one. Are you male? Female? Are you in heat? Will you be in heat soon? Do you have any leftovers to share? Etc, etc, you get the picture. (yes dogs are gross by our human standards)

Direct prolonged eye contact, in dog language, is a threat or a challenge so we don't want to force dogs to stay face to face by preventing the butt sniffing portion of the greeting. Humans greet each other face to face directly, not dogs. If we force them to stay in that position we also most likely have at least one dog also straining at the leash. Why? So it can get to the other dogs backside for that proper sniff. If we are holding back a dog that is straining we are also changing it's body language. The pulling dog can then look offensive (and threatening) to the other dog. (One reason they look offensive is due to oppositional reflex. When we pull back on the leash they lean into it automaticly, thus looking offensive to the other dog.)

So now we have two dogs face to face with at least one of them looking forwardly offensive. What happens next? Possibly a fight because the other dog may misread the body language and decide to defend himself from the other dog's possible pending attack. It is all a miscommunication caused by people preventing a proper canine greeting. (usually because they are embarrassed by the butt sniffing)

To do proper dog to dog greetings I highly recommend doing them first on neutral territory for both dogs. This prevents any hostilities with dogs that may be territorial. I also recommend taking both dogs for a walk first to burn off energy. Then meet on the neutral spot and them go for a walk together. Everyone going in the same direction. This lets the dogs see and smell each other in a non-threatening manner. No meetings until both dogs are calm and relaxed. (and handlers too!) Then stop and let each dog say hello properly on LOOSE leashes. Watch the body language for any warning signs. (stiffening, whale eyes, growling, lip lifting) Simply walk off, with said dog, if one dog seems uncomfortable.

This is important. Make sure YOU are loose and relaxed. This includes your facial expressions. Dogs take their cues from their handlers and if they seem nervous the dog may respond to that tension. Smile alot and have a loose body. (Even if you don't feel like it. Be a noodle!)

Yes if a man in a restaurant came over to sniff me (or my butt) I would probably not like it. However I am a human, not a dog. In humans this isn't unacceptable behavior. In dogs however it is. "Hello, who are you?" Butt sniffing is NOT an aggressive behavior in dogs. It is simply their way of getting information about the other dog. Letting a dog, trained or otherwise, run up to another dog to say hello might be rude if the dog wasn't socialized properly or lacks proper canine greeting manners. (and gets into the other dogs face or jumps on him) Then yes, trouble could ensue.

I would also caution that you should NEVER let your dog say hello to another dog unless you first check with that dogs owners first. (exceptions would be in a dog park where the assumption is that all the dogs there have appropriate manners to be off leash in a group of dogs - I would caution you to find groups with dog having similar playstyles to yours for the best match and supervise well)

Do not assume by size, age, actions or breed of dog that they are ok to say hello to. There are many reactive and unsocialized dogs out there with owners who walk them in public just fine unless an uninvited dog gets into their space. If your uninvited dog gets into a dogs space that doesn't like it and gets hurt as a result it is YOUR fault as the handler of your dog. Remember that. You are holding the other end of the leash after all.

Part of training your dog should include being able to pass other dogs on walks without them going crazy to go say hello. Not every dog wants to say hello back, especially to an overly enthusiastic dog or puppy. Also training them to sit (or at least stay) at your side when you stop walking, no matter the distraction, is also recommend.

If you have a reactive dog you can either move off the path and do a "watch me" exercise using yummy tidbits to let the other dog pass or turn around and change direction completely when you see another dog. Some dogs who get reactive towards other dogs do so as a distance seeking behavior out of fear. They are trying to drive the other dog away. You will need to counter condition these dogs to teach them they have nothing to fear. (using tidbits and working under the dogs threshold initally)

I have gone somewhat off topic. My point is that if Trainer X did actually say that butt sniffing was an aggressive behavior, then Trainer X was wrong. And not just a little bit but a whole lot of wrong. I don't know where they are getting their information. Hopefully the conversation was misunderstood. But this is a prime example of the problem of dog training being an unregulated field. Unfortunatly not every trainer has an interest in dog behavior. This is just one example of bad information being passed on by a "professional" in the field.


Jen said...

Great tips! Sometimes it seems like there is so much misinformation out there (with so-called experts the ones spouting it!) that half the job is simply dispelling myths. I think one of the most stressful things for dog owners is the dog-to-dog greeting; you've provided some excellent advice on how to make the moment a success.

Caveat said...

Excellent post!

It is a matter of concern that pretty much anybody can hang out a shingle and be a dog trainer, behaviourist, groomer, etc - absolutely no credentials required.

It also seems that these days, anybody can say anything they want and pretend it's true - even if there's no evidence for it and lots against it.

I don't know what the solution is, given the many different training styles, but maybe it would be possible to have a test based on common training requirements and continuing education of some kind.

There are a lot of crackpot trainers, scary groomer and whackjob behaviourists out there and the novice really has no way to know who's good.

Get an Effective & Simple Dog Training said...
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Types of Dog Aggression said...

Knowing a good trainer will be easier if you will be able to get feedback from his past clients. And also, referrals are usually good as they are already tested.