I was reading a blog recently written by a woman who confessed that though she had not always been a dog lover, she now had to greet every dog she saw. If that is truly the case I hope we never cross paths. My dogs don’t necessarily want to greet every human they meet. Even my fabulously social and cuter-than-buttons cocker spaniels began to hide under my chair when sitting at an outside cafe in Provincetown and they couldn’t take one more person cooing over them. I understand that people’s behavior is coming from a place that is essentially good, but it’s also often only essentially good for them.
At a large pet event I watched as a dog trainer, who seemed like a lovely, kind person, took the leash from a woman who had brought along a young dog she was fostering. Walking away with the dog the trainer began to gently manipulate the dog into heeling position and a sit. This was occurring in a function room with high ceilings, hundreds of people, tables, chairs and even ferrets. I watched as this sweet, stressed dog complied with the requests being made of her. Even if the trainer and dog had met before it could only have been the equivalent of a first date and here the trainer was asking the dog to hop into bed with them. The dog to her credit did the best she could. I was desperately trying to figure out the point of the exercise.
Was the trainer trying to impart some skills to the foster care giver? To the dog? It sure wasn’t a teachable moment as far as I could tell. Was the trainer trying to show off their skills? Even if only gently pushing down on a dog’s hind end and lifting up their tail to get it to sit works, I was far more impressed with the dog than the trainer. It was loud enough in the room that I had to lean closer to people speaking to me and crowded enough that people brushed by as they maneuvered past. I can’t imagine what the dog, with senses more sensitive than my own, was experiencing. But I tried. I tried to imagine the world at that moment from the dog’s perspective. A dog who had not only never been in a place like this before, was a dog in transition.
The experience likely did not cause any damage to this resilient and tolerant dog but I continued to wonder why two people who were obviously caring, kind, gentle dog lovers, would take the risk of putting a dog into a situation in which she might be continuously pushed toward being overwhelmed. The only conclusion I could come to was that they were unaware of what the dog was trying to say. I’d like to think they’d care, if they had taken a moment to pay attention to what the dog was asking for with her slight resistance, look-aways, attempts at avoidance, or in one case flopping to the ground.
Fortunately most dogs are resilient and adaptable. They manage to learn and cope despite how we handle them, not because of how we handle them. Some of that handling may even contribute to their ability to cope with extremes, but some dogs may not benefit and become anxious or negatively reactive. If we really and truly love and care about dogs why don’t more of us inquire as to whether a dog would like to add us to their dance card or sit this one out before we drag them onto the dance floor?