Consider the breed and think about personal space

Posted: Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Doggie Do'sBy Linda Shipman

Consider this scenario: You're at a party or an out-of-town business meeting. Another member of the group, a stranger to you, comes up to chat. During the conversation, this person moves to within eight inches of you, nearly nose to nose, raises his or her voice, and puts an arm around your shoulder to make a point. Are you experiencing some discomfort at this point? Why?

The issue is personal space. This invisible quality goes everywhere with us like a bubble. Its size varies, depending on such things as the person's relationship to you (spouse vs. stranger); the environment (riding on a crowded bus vs. test-taking); and within which culture we grow up.

Now consider dogs, both as the breed they represent and as individuals. Some breeds may have larger boundary bubbles, such as working dogs that were bred for guarding territory or their families, or terriers, which typically have little tolerance for other animals, including dogs. Other breeds, such as retrievers, may appear to have little or no boundaries.

Some individual dogs, of all breeds, may require more personal space because of prior life experiences. Perhaps they weren't socialized well as a puppy and may be afraid of other dogs or not understand how dogs play. Perhaps an aggressive dog gave them a good scare and/or they were bitten.

Most of us know members of the sporting breeds, like Labrador or Golden Retrievers, who are enthusiastic, goofy, bouncy extroverts, running right up on other dogs wanting to play.

Now imagine one of these dogs interacting with working breeds, such as Doberman Pinschers or Rottweilers, who were originally bred as loyal companions who guarded their businessmen owners and their moneybags. Working breeds, in general, are slightly reserved and aloof towards those outside their family unit. Even within the sporting breed group, consider the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, originally bred to guard his owner's hunting stash from poachers, who shares the working group's attributes of loyalty, reserve and aloofness.

What do you think may happen when you put these two different types of canine personalities together? The working dog has a job to do (guarding), and is focused on it. The playful retriever may run up on the other dog, trying to entice him by circling, sniffing and coming face to face.

Whose fault is it when ruffs start standing on end and teeth are bared? Most people would point at the working breed. But is that fair, since he is simply doing his job, and the retriever has violated his personal space? Whatever the cause, it doesn't necessarily indicate that a dog is aggressive. It may be that he is simply insisting on proper canine social manners.

Puppies, in particular, can be very aggravating to older dogs, because they are still learning proper social interaction and dog body language, especially in play and with strange dogs. This is why it is very important not to separate puppies from their dams to go to new homes before eight weeks. These early weeks are critical to a puppy's social development, as it learns to play with its siblings, and the mother corrects inappropriate behavior.

Most times, older dogs will cut very young puppies slack. But as the puppy approaches adolescence, hormones start pumping, and it starts testing its position in the pack. It can be an awkward time because the puppy still has a puppy mentality, yet its body looks like an adult's. An older dog that doesn't know the puppy may interpret its behavior as offensive and correct it. The correction may be a growl, teeth bared or an air snap. There will be no harm to the puppy, if it complies with the correction. This is simply a warning about respecting another's personal space.

So how do you use this information?

Be very aware of your dog, and other dogs it meets, while out on trails or walking in public. Be aware of breed personalities, the age of the other dog, and especially what its body language is saying about meeting you and your dog.

If the other dog is on a leash, put your dog on leash or tell it to sit-stay. Ask the owner of the dog if it welcomes other dogs coming close while it's on leash. Many times, the owner will have the dog on a leash because it tends to run off and doesn't come when called. Other times, the owners have the dog on a leash because they know it has space boundary issues and doesn't like other dogs in its face. Consider it your job, as your dog's caretaker, to respect their differences.

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