Has anyone ever asked you this question as their own dog or young child approaches your dog eager to interact?
Perhaps they should ask a different question. How about “would your dog mind meeting my dog?” or “Would your dog mind if my child strokes him?” And how about asking this question while still at a distance so the dog’s owner has the chance to give a response?
An owner might not want to say “no, my dog is not friendly”, because that might be seen to imply that their dog is aggressive. It might simply be that their dog doesn’t enjoy interacting with strange dogs or people, even though it would be unlikely to bite (any dog can bite, but this dog may not have any history or high likelihood of biting). Would you be able to tell if your dog doesn’t enjoy the interaction in the absence of any growling or other signs of “aggression”?
When children used to ask if Sheba was friendly, I used to say she was because she had no history of biting children. However, as time went on I noticed she was giving signals that she didn’t enjoy being stroked by children she didn’t know. She never growled or bit, but there were subtle signs.
The signals dogs provide about how they might be feeling are visible in their body language, and they spend many of their waking hours signalling their feelings either consciously or unconsciously. One such signal that you will almost certainly see in your dog, if you look for it, is the tongue flick. This is often given if we approach a dog head on, which may make the dog feel a little uncomfortable.
Another common signal is the head turn, at which Buster is particularly adept.
After I realised Sheba wasn’t enjoying interactions with strange children I used to tell them that she didn’t bite, but she just didn’t enjoy being stroked. Luckily I had a big snuggle bug in the form of Teddy!
I believe we should allow our dogs to make choices about their own body when it is possible to do so. Once I understood that Sheba didn’t enjoy being stroked by children she didn’t know, I respected her wishes and prevented it from happening.
Buster had to spend yesterday at the vet having some dental surgery. When I came to take him home he was woozy from the aneasthetic. While I was paying, an extremely excitable and friendly young beagle dragged his way forward, straining to sniff Buster. Buster looked at the beagle and then turned his back on it (an extremely clear signal). I told the dog and owner that Buster didn’t feel like making friends as he was recovering from surgery. The owner responded by immediately removing his dog to a more comfortable distance from Buster.
Dogs are epic at reading our body language. However, they cannot speak English. As dog lovers we should strive to understand our dogs better so that we can be their voice. On the whole, my experience of dogs is that they are extremely tolerant. When I have found intolerance in dogs, it is usually because all their subtle signals of discomfort have been ignored. When I visit clients I often explain the signals dogs give, so that dog and owner can live in better harmony and overcome any problems together. I think that’s really what owners want, and it is certainly what their dogs would with for.