Dogs shouldn’t be judged by human standards and greeting is no exception!
Dogs obtain a huge amount of information via scent – glands are located all over the body and these emit pheromones and scent that tell of age, hormonal status, diet, health, gender, mood and disposition. Dogs have amazing scenting ability and have around 220 million scent receptors as compared to our 5 million, but more than this they can discriminate between scents to an incredible extent too. For example, a dog can detect Butyric acid (found in in sweat), so this is why they can be so good at tracking, it is estimated that the sweat left in a shoe print is way above their threshold – so a piece of cake…. When we consider that proportionally the area of a dogs’ brain devoted to interpreting and analysing scent is around 44 times larger than ours it is obvious that olfactory communication is extremely important to the dog, at least as important as sight is to us as humans. This is why dogs smell each other thoroughly – this is a way to obtain detailed information about their social counterpart.
Well before scent takes over dogs receive a vast amount of information at a distance through visual cues – tail, ears, body stance, muscle tension and eye contact are at play and give the social partner a good idea of the dog’s mood even before meeting. Dogs can visually read a territory and another dog instinctively and quickly – in fact dogs have also become very adept at reading human emotion through ‘left gaze bias’ which is only useful for reading human faces – dogs don’t need this to read each other’s emotional state but do use this technique on us just as we use it on each other completely subconsciously!
The greeting between dogs is highly ritualised and between a balanced pair of dogs that have had adequate input from Mother and siblings it looks like a dance, the more confident dog will sometimes approach the face first, but generally during a polite greeting dogs will generally sniff nose to tail before moving on to other parts of the body and eventually the face if they are comfortable with what they discover. In a good meeting ritual all parties are calm and focussed on ‘reading’ the others emotional and hormonal state, this dictates the outcome of the meeting; play, avoidance or even aggression may ensue after the ritual is complete. But dogs should never be forced to meet, first they need to have curiosity and to approach at their own pace.
Puppies can get away with more than adults, they have their ‘puppy license’ during the early weeks and adults will generally accept much more in the way of inappropriate ‘learning curve’ behaviour at this time, and will correct patiently during these early weeks, this is why it is so important to get puppies immersed into social learning and play well before this ‘puppy license’ runs out!
Unfortunately, many dogs that are brought to my attention as a behaviourist have not had adequate opportunity to learn and develop these skills – they may lack boundaries to excitement and/or aggression due to being separated from mum too soon, or due to Mum being non-punishing in her teachings, they may be afraid of other dogs due to a bad experience and a lack of exposure early on. It is these dogs that can come across as ‘rude’ or confrontational or send the wrong signals upon meeting. Perhaps because the dog is too excitable upon first meeting and they run in with too much enthusiasm and eye contact, or because they are feeling insecure, threatened or unsure and are producing cortisol – this is associated with stress and tension. All of these communications can be read through visual and scent signals. The counterpart dog cannot know that the dog is afraid of him, only that he is gearing up for fight or flight as his pheromones and scents describe, this can be a catalyst for an altercation.
This is where the handler can influence a greeting enormously! If we are tense and anxious or unsure about a meeting, if we tense up and tighten the lead and kick out clouds of cortisol and/or adrenaline – even before the dog approaches – then this can set the dog up for an unsuccessful meeting from the start. If we leave the house whilst the dog is very excited and anxious we can set him up to fail. The dog will take his lead from us, particularly if he lacks experience, so we must remain calm, relaxed and confident at all times – to tense up or anticipate conflict is almost ensuring that the meeting will not go well! He may become fearful, or may become aggressive in a bid to protect us from this perceived threat. We can also make matters worse by staring at the dog to ‘see what he will do’ upon approach – this is a clear message to the dog that we are waiting for him to ‘deal’ with the situation – better to have eyes forward and remain relaxed and confident so that our dog will look to us rather than us looking to him.
On the other side of the coin if we watch body language carefully (usually tension, ears forward and extended eye contact) and offer a quick verbal or lead correction to interrupt the escalation before it even begins, and encourage relaxation then we can ‘coach’ a poorly socialised dog through proper greeting behaviour and ensure a successful outcome that is the ultimate reward; social contact and play.
Parallel walking is a great way to introduce two dogs – this removes eye contact – which can be seen as threatening or confrontational – and allows them to share in a tiring, enjoyable bonding experience before they get up close and personal! This also gives owners time to chat and relax before the greeting ritual begins. In addition, where possible - calm balanced confident dogs can really help a less secure or inexperienced dog to learn through observation, so if an inexperienced dog accompanies a balanced dog everywhere then this will go a great way towards encouraging him to be curious about meeting other dogs and following both the balanced dogs example and that which we offer through our attitude and energy.