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When You Assume Other Dogs are Friendly…

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

two dogs meeting on leash

When your preferred time for dog walking is the early morning, you get to know your local park regulars pretty well. Last week I ran into a Border Collie and his owner, both of whom I knew by name. (Yes, you may click and treat me for knowing the human’s name, too.) The dog is reactive with other dogs and also pulls on leash. A month previously, a friendly chat had led me to suggest a head halter. The woman purchased one, and now the dog barely pulls. He’s also doing much better around other dogs. But when an off-leash terrier began to walk directly toward him, I almost stopped breathing. The Border Collie’s mom had the dog as far off the path as possible and was actually standing in front of him to block the little dog’s approach. The Border Collie, to his credit, was managing to stay in a sit. Fortunately, after someone yelled to the terrier’s owner, “You really don’t want him to approach that dog!” (okay, that was me), she called the dog back to her and no one got hurt.

After the Border Collie and his mom went on their way, I told the terrier’s owner that the Border Collie can be aggressive toward other dogs, and would quite possibly have bitten her dog had he approached. The owner answered that she always assumes other dogs are friendly. Now, I’m honestly happy for her and the little dog’s sake that it’s turned out that way so far, but there’s entirely too much assumption going on there. And the one time she’s wrong, it could mean severe injury or worse for the terrier.

Interestingly, since Bodhi has gotten to the point where he’s much less reactive toward other dogs, people assume he’s dog-friendly. Many an owner will begin to veer toward us to “let the dogs say hello,” which is the last thing a reactive, leash-restrained dog who’s holding it together needs. Just because a dog isn’t lunging at the end of a leash or frothing at the mouth, it doesn’t mean he wants to meet your dog! Had the person been paying attention, they might have heard Bodhi making a soft, squeaking sound that’s his own signature blend of frustration and self-control. When necessary, I intervene to explain that actually, he’d prefer not to meet your dog, but thanks anyway and have a nice day.

Assumptions that dogs are friendly are made all the time. Children are notorious for running up to dogs and then finding out the hard way whether they’re friendly or not. And although we teach kids to ask first whether it’s okay to pet the nice doggy, I seldom see adults do the same. I’d like to think I’m a good judge of canine body language, but I still don’t know someone else’s dog as well as they do, and I always ask before approaching. And, by the way, even when owners say their dog is friendly, a quick scan of the dog’s body language often reveals whether what they’re saying is accurate or not.

You know the old saying: “When you assume, it makes an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” Worse than being an ass, assuming puts dogs at risk. What we need are fewer assumptions and more awareness of canine body language, respect for space, and communication.


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