I watched a video posted online of a small dog (we’ll call him Fido) being held in a person’s arms while someone held a stuffed dog at his level as if it was approaching Fido head on. Fido pinned his ears back and began to growl and snarl at the stuffed dog. The person holding the stuffed dog continued to move it towards him in a back and forth motion. Fido continued to growl and snarl.
I am sure this occurred with no harm intended. I assume it was viewed as entertaining and funny to some people. However, I see it as an opportunity for people to learn how what may seem like an insignificant, harmless event such as this, is actually detrimental to the wellbeing of our K9 companions.
Dogs are emotional and social beings. They experience joy, excitement, fear and anxiety as strongly as we do, yet with much less information than we have to assess a situation. From this little guy’s perspective, he was being restrained with no option to escape while an object that he perceived as threatening was approaching him. His only recourse was to growl and snarl to make it go away. His body language clearly indicated his distress and need for the “scary” thing to go away. Although, we, the humans, know it is a stuffed dog and Fido was not in danger, Fido did not know that. Ultimately in his mind, the snarling and growling eventually made the scary thing go away. He will retain this in his memory to make his perceived threats go away in the future. Next time, it may be a situation that humans don’t find funny, but how is Fido to know the difference? In his mind, a perceived threat is a REAL threat and his choice in response will be similar….only next time maybe it is a real dog who will not take kindly to his snarling and growling, or maybe it will be a person he perceives as a threat. Perception is reality. His reality was a scary situation where, in contrast, the human reality was entertainment.
As a society, we tend to give less respect (albeit, unintentionally) to small dogs. They are easier to physically control so we overwhelm them with our physical presence and attention. We dismiss behaviors from them that we don’t dismiss from larger dogs. Had this occurred with a large dog in the same scenario, I doubt it would have been handled the same or even caught on camera to share.
Dogs learn from experience and association. As dog parents, it is our responsibility to create positive experiences and associations so our K9 companions can deal confidently with their ever-changing environment. They need and deserve to be able to trust us to keep them safe. We can accomplish this by not forcing them to deal with things beyond their comfort level. We can create positive associations with new events by letting them choose to stay at a distance where they feel safe and then pair the event with something wonderful.
Alternate option to the scenario in the video….Fido is on leash walking with his human, he sees stuffed dog at a distance, his humans are cognizant of his concern and do not force him to get closer thereby giving him the ability to feel safe. His humans then reward his great behavior choice to observe the stuffed dog with calm confidence by giving him a special treat that he LOVES……with good timing and repetition, he learns he is safe in the presence of a stuffed dog! When he feels safe, he doesn’t go into “fight or flight” response (growling, snarling, or trying to escape) AND the stuffed dog becomes a predictor of something great …. like a really tasty treat, verbal praise, affection, etc. Humans are happy and entertained by his joy and confidence! Humans video Fido’s behavior and share it with pride and love! Everybody wins!
Stay tuned for more Happy Woofs from the K9 Professor.