The other day I was speaking to my neighbour, a lovely senior with a heart of gold. Even though he is very comfortable around my dogs he confided in me that he isn’t a big dog fan. Obviously, I was curious to know why (I mean, who doesn’t love a dog!) but when I heard his answer I wasn’t surprised anymore. He had been bitten by a border collie a few years ago, and the worst thing was… “the bite came out of nowhere!”. After acknowledging that I felt for him, my next inevitable question was of course: “so what happened exactly?”, as I know a (healthy) dog NEVER bites out of the blue. Here is a snap of our conversation:
Neigbour: “well I went to this person’s house, and we were standing there chatting. The dog was just sitting next to his owner and all of the sudden it lunged to my calve and bit a chunk out of it.”
Me: “Thanks for that graphic imagine in my head (brrr), but did the dog choose to sit himself?”
Neighbour: “what do you mean?”
Me: “Well you mention the dog was sitting next to his owner. But was this by choice or did the owner tell him to do so?”
Neighbour: “Well the owner told him to do so. That is why I was so surprised. I mean the dog did bark and follow people that went past his yard, but he was really obedient too. When the owner would tell him to sit he would. He seemed to be such a good dog”
By now the whole situation made perfect sense to me. Within his last comment he made it clear that this dog was definitely not comfortable around people (at least within his own territory). The owner had been trying to overshadow the dogs discomfort by telling him what to do, in this case a “sit”.
Two major issues arise from this “solution”:
Telling a dog what to do doesn’t change the underlying emotion in the dog. Meaning the dog in this situation doesn’t feel any better about the person being on his property once he is told to sit.
Your dog has no more opportunity to communicate back to you once he is told what to do. Dogs have a range of communication available. They show how they feel by either vocalization (barking, whining), body language (calming signs such as moving the head, licking their nose, yawning etc.) and by behaviour such as walking away.
Likely you are now thinking “well what should he have done?”. The first action to put in place is to ensure that, for the time being, the dog isn’t in the same area as visitors. Next the owner should (with help from a professional) be addressing the emotion that the dog is experiencing. Acknowledge that the dog is uncomfortable and stop ignoring his signs (for example the barking to people passing). The dog has to learn that we are “listening” to him, and that visitors aren’t a threat.
Of course, I tried to explain all the above to my neighbour in a few sentences. And even though he really does love my dogs he still feels that the particular dog in his story should have been “put down”. I do understand what he is coming from. Knowing what the dog did and the possibility he might do the same to children or other adults is a horrifying thought. But I also hope he understood that this is not only the dogs problem; it’s a society problem. We focus too much on obedience being the answer to any unwanted behaviour. We ignore what dogs try to tell us which, as we can learn from this example, can have catastrophic consequences.