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Every dog needs a friend

Is your dog an only dog? Does he spend all of his time with humans? Do you ever wonder whether he is missing anything? He most likely is! Or perhaps you have multiple dogs at home - shouldn’t that be enough canine company? Imagine you never had any close contact with anyone except your family. You might greet strangers in the street but would you call that a fulfilled social life? Neither would your dog. Perhaps your dog sees other dogs at the park every day, and is encouraged to play with them or rush up to them for a nose to nose greeting. While this might be seen as good socialising and nice for your dog, for some dogs it isn’t nice at all. Imagine you walked up to every unfamiliar human in the street and gave them a handshake. A bit awkward, isn’t it? Would you start a conversation out of the blue? Go for a little run together? Most dogs wouldn’t either. Strangers and friends Like children, puppies and young dogs often spontaneously get along and start to play (although they should never be forced to). Things can be very different, however, for an adolescent or adult dog, just as they are for a 14 or 30 year old human. When you meet a stranger in the street and you want to be polite, you might smile, nod your head or murmur a word of greeting. When a dog meets an unfamiliar dog in the street, the polite response is to curve around him and look away. A dog who runs straight up to another dog (often head and tail raised) often does this due to a lack of social skills (he never had the opportunity to learn how to be polite) or because he is nervous about the other dog. He may want to check them out up close to make sure that they are not a threat, or polite behaviour may have been forgotten due to excitement and nervousness. Or perhaps he wants to tell them in no uncertain terms to go away! Add two worried humans and tense leads into the mix and you often end up with lunging, growls and flashing teeth. Not the outcome you were hoping to achieve for your dog! When you meet a friend, you might shake hands, kiss or hug. You might stop and talk for a while and continue on your way. Or you might arrange to meet a friend for dinner, a chat and some time in each other’s company. The same goes for your dog. When he meets a friend, they have a little ‘chat’. This may or may not involve body contact, depending on the personalities of the dogs as well as the situation or mood the dogs are in. Their body language and pheromone messages make it possible for them to communicate at a distance. When spending time together, they may enjoy playing with each other for a little while. But mostly, they do the things that dogs enjoy the most – they take in the world of scent around them by sniffing together. They walk together or just hang out while sniffing and communicating with one another through body language. These relaxed interactions are enjoyable and give dogs self-confidence. “But dogs aren’t people …” As the examples above illustrate, polite dog behaviour is different from polite human behaviour. But we do have some things in common – both species have evolved to be very social, and to be dependent on their social groups for resources such as food and safety. Our social groups are also dependent on politeness and tolerance in order for them to function. If dogs and humans are constantly impolite to each other, this leads to conflict, and can endanger our well-being and survival. Both species need safety to feel at ease in their environment, and nothing is as safe as our familiar and polite social group. Being approached by an impolite stranger can feel threatening. Humans and dogs have also evolved to get along with one another, and a dog-human friendship full of mutual respect and understanding can be very fulfilling for both parties. At the same time, we still appreciate spending social time with members of our own species. My dog’s social life So what does this mean for you and your dog? Firstly, it means that your dog should never be forced or persuaded to approach an unfamiliar dog. Often the more polite behaviour for dogs is to curve widely around each other and move away. If your dog is showing signs of approaching a strange dog in an impolite way (watch his body language for signs such as a raised tail and head, leaning forward, staring at the other dog, a fast approach) he should be prevented from doing so. If this is an ongoing problem, consulting an experienced and ethical behaviourist can help. Secondly, think about finding your dog some regular friends! Go for walks with other dogs and make sure there is enough distance between them to allow for politeness, safety and communication through body language – long leads (at least three metres) and harnesses are the way to go. There is no need for hours of crazy playing, as this can end up being quite stressful and can lead to a rise in tension. After a few gentle walks with lots of sniffing and exploring, soon enough the dogs will become friends – as will their humans! Although just like humans, dogs have their own preferences when it comes to who they want to spend time with, and there is no point in forcing a relationship. If it doesn’t work out or it’s too stimulating for your dog, try finding some new options. Once you and your dog have found a good dog friend, continue to meet them on a regular basis – your dog will thank you for it!

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