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Breaking through the friendship barrier

I recently found out I was quoted in a book by Dr. Marc Bekoff – Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. The context was my #livesofstreeties project. He quotes the study in the context of how the human-centric lives of our pet dogs could be having unintended negative consequences on our pet dogs, which can be seen in contrast to the lives of street dogs.

…However, in Bangalore, India, in one study of street dogs—called “streeties” by the locals—Sindhoor Pangal observes: “I found the dogs that I studied to not seem stressed at all. They showed no signs of elevated stress levels in their body language. When approached, all of them were relaxed, cautiously curious (like most street dogs) and very friendly once they realized I was no threat…

So it feels apt to me that I dedicate this post to a streety. I’m going with Blacky’s story. Blacky is the new dog that has turned up at the ground we go to explore each morning. Watch the video and you’ll know why we’ve decided to call him Blacky. That’s 6AM humor for you, what can I say?

CLARIFICATION: I have been informed that 'Blacky' is not a very pleasant term in some countries such as the US with bad connotations and is offensive. However, here in India, it is a rather innocuous term. We often name dogs based on something as unimaginative as their coat colour and patterns. So many of our streeties are called Whitey, Blacky, Browny, Patchy etc…All of them are terms that carry no intention to offend anyone and are simply terms of endearment we use on our dogs.

Anyway, the boy seems to nurse some old injuries in his neck, perhaps as a result of having been attacked by dogs in the past and is understandably skittish. He wants to move into the “neighbourhood" and is clearly looking to make friends. Because he has seen us twice, he perhaps thinks making friends with my dogs will somehow get him a buy-in to the group that already lives there. I have no clue how their politics will pan out. I am rooting for Blacky and do wish they accept him. He seems pleasant enough and young enough to be able to make friends. But the existing group is a bit of a rowdy group. So, let’s see how that goes.

Meanwhile, in Nishi-Tiggy land, when we turn up for our morning walks, the existing gang is either out somewhere or huddled in one part of the ground and we use the other. So far, none of them have wanted to make friends and they have expressed not liking us turning up there. This is the first dog who wants to make friends and obviously, we are more than happy about his intentions. “We” being, all four of us, of course. If the girls did not want this, we would not want it either. But they seem open to it.

Tiggy, as you can see, is having no trouble at all making friends with him. This video is of their first encounter. It was quite brief. Nishi is aware that her approaching dogs scares them off. So on their first meeting, Nishi is almost looking disinterested. But I will not at all be surprised if all that turning away, walking away, sniffing etc… are in fact signals to Blacky that she’s “cool”.

Today all three of them decided to take it up a notch. Blacky stood right outside some kind of invisible boundary that all three seem to have agreed upon. That boundary seemed to keep shrinking during the session. Tiggy was being invited to step out of this invisible boundary. She would oblige, play a bit and then return to this “zone”. The two clearly hit it off! With Tiggy’s help, if I manage to get closer, I want to see if I can get that neck looked at by a vet.

Blacky made it clear that he is VERY keen on making friends with “us”. I think the “us” is mainly directed at Tiggy, but if that means he needs to get to know all of us, Nishi included, he might be okay doing it. Nishi too seems to want to get to know this young fella. But unfortunately, it’s not going as smooth as with Tiggy.

Nishi is blind in one eye and can’t see too well in the other. I don’t know if that’s the issue or if it’s a boxer thing or a Nishi thing. But Nishi has a very head-on-thundering approach that is very intimidating for dogs, especially for a skittish, small, young dog like Blacky. If Blacky were on a leash, I would be very anxious about Nishi’s approach bringing out Blacky’s defensive side. But since Blacky is a streetie and has the freedom to run away, I am not so nervous. He does seem to use his freedom wisely.

Nishi is a good dog. She is aware of the effect she has on these dogs and tries to do her best. She uses a lot of freezing and turning of her head to try to reassure him. But she can’t seem to help the way she moves. Everytime she moves towards him, it seems to scare him.

However, as we observed all of this unfold, we realised that she had an additional handicap – us. That means Blacky is not just seeing a big black dog thundering towards him, but a human also approach him. How scary would that be to Blacky? No wonder, Tiggy and Blacky are already friends. Nishi and Blacky are nowhere close yet.

Perhaps, Nishi has to learn that as long as she has us, apart from her vision impairment, large black body and intimidating body language, she also has a leash and mommy/daddy attached to the leash. We are an added handicap in her social skills that she will have to account for and develop alternative strategies to approach dogs that minimizes use of movement.

This is a great learning opportunity for her and us. Can you think of any way we could make our own body language non-intimidating to Blacky or try to factor us out of this somehow? I am thinking of trying out with a 5 metre leash instead of 3 to put more distance between us and Nishi and let her do this a bit more on her own. Any other ideas? And of course, calming signal buffs…how many do you see in this video? Feel free to leave your analysis of the video in the comments.

UPDATE: So, where we’ve currently left it at is that Tiggy and Blacky are friends. Nishi and Blacky are still testing the waters. All the dogs decided to call it off at this point and it seems like this is a continuing dialogue. Will keep you posted on how it goes.

Sindhoor is a canine behaviour consultant, Galen myotherapist and educator in Bangalore, India. She is the country representative for Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE) and the founder of BHA, a premier canine education academy and Bangalore Hundeskole, a consultation service for holistic canine care.

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