- Are You Breaking Dog Law?
Scientists have learned that dogs are perhaps the most skilled animals on Earth at learning the culture and behaviors of other species. They can welcome any species as a family member and learn to communicate with it.
That's how we are able to basically undo nearly every instinct in their doggy nature to get them to fit in with us. When we ask dogs to sit to greet someone, or to refrain from digging in the garden, we are asking them to resist millennia of evolution. But they do it - for us.
I only wish we did it for them.
Humans routinely violate deeply held Dog Laws. When we do this, we teach our dogs three things:
1. These dog laws are not important.
2. Human laws are different and override dog laws.
3. It is okay to ignore someone else's social boundaries.
Not only does this cause them problems with other dogs, as human behavior starts to bleed into their interactions with their own species, but it also causes problems for us, when they turn what we have taught them back on ourselves.
Many forms of aggression in dogs are a result of humans ignoring Dog Law. It's time people recognized them and started respecting them.
There are only two, after all.
"...there appeared to be an ownership zone (Mech 1970) around the mouth of each wolf, and regardless of the rank of a challenger, the owner tried to retain the food it possessed, as Lockwood (1979) also found with captive wolves. Wolves of any rank could try to steal food from another of any rank, but every wolf defended its food."
- Mech, L. David. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology
Usually "asking" is a matter of walking up and reaching into the other dog's space and checking their body language. If the dog stiffens and growls, that's a clear "no". If the dog lets the object go, then they're saying, "sure, go ahead".
The only way dominance tends to play into this is the way the dogs "ask" each other for objects. A submissive dog, like a puppy, will grovel and beg for the item whereas a dominant dog is much more likely to just walk into the other dog's space and take it - think of the teacher walking up and holding out their hand to take away a forbidden device from a student.
But in the human world, the submissive person (the student or child) is not allowed to say "no". In the dog world... they can, because they are holding it and so it is theirs.
The basic keep-away game is just a game of tag, pretty much, with the item used as a lure to get the other dog interested. Other times, if the dog who is "it" seems okay with it, the "robber" grabs the item and they play a game of tug with it. The winner is "it" and gets to be chased by the other dog who is now the "robber".
Games like this help by teaching the social rules around possession, and can help diffuse tensions over resources.
It usually starts when they are puppies who keep picking up inappropriate objects. Instead of berating ourselves for leaving an inappropriate object within the reach of a puppy, we snatch it out of their mouth. In the human world, the teacher or parent can take things away from the student/child, so we see this as okay.
Some dogs put up with this rude behavior, or just change their attitude to think that snatching from others is okay. The dog will be more likely to snatch food from someone, because they have learned that in this family, we don't respect the boundaries around possession. Stealing is okay here! Yay! What really gets them into trouble is when they pull this on other dogs. If they don't respect the stiffening posture or the low growl of the other dog when they try to steal a ball or stick, they're likely to end up in a dog fight.
However, many other dogs deal with this human rudeness by running away or growling when a human approaches them when they have something in their mouths, particularly if it is forbidden.
We need to teach dogs how to share. In the human world, we pool resources and then distribute them. The dominant person - be that the government or the money manager of the household - takes charge of ensuring equitable distribution of community resources.
This is totally alien to dogs.
We need to teach them, first by demonstrating sharing and generosity and then by encouraging them to do the same.
Games like tug are good for teaching about sharing - we take turns "winning" the object and then immediately offer it back again. When we "win" the object we throw it to them, rather than keeping it for ourselves.
We also teach dogs that they can ask us for food and treats by sitting politely or lying in their bed.
But asking them to give up what is in their mouth can be tricky, even with an easy going dog who has seen generosity and sharing modelled frequently. It goes against a LOT of doggy instincts.
If your dog no longer trusts you, because they think you're a rude thief, then you will have to work for a while to regain their trust. If you have a puppy or new dog and your relationship is just getting started, it's easier.
Either way the process is the same - ask for what they have. You can put your hand out and ask "can I see?" and wait. If the dog approaches you, cheer and praise them for being so generous with their possessions. Do not try to grab the object. Instead wait for the dog to drop it. It helps if you offer them a food reward just for bringing it over to you. Don't hold it out like a bribe - give up your possession of it by dropping it on the floor.
That says, "see? I have given up the yummy treat I have. Can you give up what you have?"
When the dog drops what they have to eat the treat, don't lunge for the object! Instead praise them again for dropping the item and offer another treat. Then point at the object and again ask, "can I see?"
Note: Once the object is dropped, the dog does not have possession of it anymore and it's free for anyone to grab up. But if you grab it right away, your dog will be much more reluctant to let go next time. It's best to leave the object on the floor for a while to show the dog that it is safe to put things down for a while.
If the dog stiffens or runs over to the object, shrug and turn away. Then turn back and ask "can you drop it?" and drop another treat. When the dog drops it cheer and and drop more treats. Then ask for permission to touch the object.
When the dog lets you pick up the object, praise them and offer them another treat. Show how generous you are, to motivate them to be generous in return. Dogs are social learners and will pay attention to the example you set. Then return the object to them.
At first you may have to try this with very low-value objects, but eventually your dog will learn.
Gretel once came up and put a dead bird in my hand! I didn't even know she had it. She just wanted to share.
It is normal and okay to growl or snap at someone to tell them how much you dislike what they are doing to you.
This is quite different from human society, which often believes that dominant people have the right to their subordinate's bodies.
Strangers often feel they should be able to touch the hair or pregnant belly of another person, and are offended if the person reacts negatively to this interaction.
Some human cultures have larger bubbles of personal space while others have smaller ones (think Scandinavia over Mediterranean). Among equals we are allowed to defend our own personal space, but when one person is dominant over the other (police over criminal, or parent over child, for example) we still tend to think it is permissible to manhandle another against their will.
This is not the case in the dog world.
In the dog world, even a little puppy can say "I don't want you to do that" and the other dog is expected to listen, even if it is the parent.
Dogs practice rules around touch in play. Dogs who don't like to be touched much will turn to games of tag and chase, and if the other dog "tags" them too firmly they'll tell the other dog off. If they start feeling scared, and more like prey than like they are "it", they will tuck their tail and freeze. The other dog, if well socialized, will immediately behave as though they have gone invisible, turning away and totally ignoring them.
Even dogs who love a good hard game of wrestle and bitey-face will frequently break off play, just to make sure their playmate is paying attention. After all, if you're going to engage in mock-battles to the death, you want to be sure that your playmate will respect your safeword. After a moment of breaking it off, the dog will re-engage play as if to say "just checking!"
How We Ruin It:
Humans are often shocked and angry the first time their dog says "stoppit" to them or their children. A dog who growls or snaps at someone touching them is considered aggressive - a problem to be fixed. But the dog did nothing wrong according to Dog Law - they communicated their discomfort and that is their right to do so.
Usually dogs don't have to go so far as to growl or snap at another dog. They are very sensitive to body language, and a dog who freezes, goes tense, or turns their head away to say "I'm not interacting with you right now", will be immediately left alone by any other well socialized dog.
But humans are a little dense when it comes to body language. A dog tells us loud and clear, 'I don't like this' by stiffening and turning their head, but the barbaric human keeps touching them anyway. The growl and the flash of the teeth come next.
The worst thing you could possibly do at that moment is escalate by grabbing the dog further - scruffing, pinning, or other forms of physical confrontation will only convince the dog that you have not understood their message.
If a dog learns through repeated experience that even a growl isn't enough to get the message across, they will start to drop the warnings and go straight for the thing that is guaranteed to work - a good hard bite.
Advocates of the "dominance" model of training will point out that scruffing and pinning are common dog behaviors, and ones that mothers will often use on their puppies. This is true, but (and this is important) she does this to teach puppies about dog law.
If she tells the puppy, "stop biting my tail, I don't like that" and the puppy doesn't listen, then she'll lose her patience with the puppy. It is her right to defend her body, and by any means necessary, and she will make sure her puppies learn that, and learn it quickly.
No emotionally stable and properly socialized mother would pin her puppy for defending his own body. She will do it to defend her own or occasionally to defend one of the other puppies. But if she's trying to groom the puppy and the puppy growled or snapped at her, she would let the puppy go.
If you were a puppy, and your Auntie Muriel decided to pinch your cheek, it would be within your rights to slap her and tell her "stop!". Although if Auntie Muriel were well socialized, she would be able to tell from your body language that you didn't want a cheek-pinch and she wouldn't do it in the first place.
Their best teachers will be well socialized adult dogs, who will be quick to flash their teeth when the puppy gets rude, but are controlled and confident enough not to go further than that. We don't want anyone getting hurt.
Sometimes, though, adult dogs can be overly tolerant of puppies, so other puppies are also important playmates. Puppies are quick to scream loudly if they even THINK they are going to be hurt, so their siblings will pause and/or Mom will come running.
It's our job to keep this up when they come home. We do this by making a big noisy fuss over types of touch we don't like, such as play-biting (many dogs grow up thinking that our clothes have nerve endings).
We have detailed tips on dealing with puppy nipping here.
You should ask the dog, too. Not all dogs want strangers to pat them. Not all dogs want loved ones to pat them. A dog coming up to say hello is just saying hello, not necessarily trying to get the stranger to pat them. Put your hand toward them to see if they back away, look away, or freeze. If they do - do not proceed.
If they nudge at the hand or try to get in for some pats, you're in the clear. Otherwise they may just sniff your hand, go around to your butt to get to know you properly, and move on.
If your dog is used to people listening when they stiffen their body, or turn their head away, or pull their paw out of your grip, then, when it's REALLY necessary, your dog is more likely to tolerate it without biting, because they have never had to escalate to biting in the past in order to get humans to listen. They trust people with their bodies, because people have always been trustworthy.
We should also familiarize them with the necessary types of touch - nail trimming, brushing, restraint for blood work and so on. Our video above will show you how to help accustom your dog to touch and restraint. Some dogs are naturally more tolerant of touch than others. Your dog will tell you where their boundaries are.
Listen to them.
You can use a licky pad smeared with peanut butter or cheez whiz or some other disgusting paste as a "consent button", too.
If the dog stops licking the peanut butter, stop your brushing/shampooing/nail trimming. When the dog resumes, you resume. This way, your dog learns that they can stop you at any time just by pausing. By continuing to enjoy the peanut butter, they are giving you consent to continue whatever you are doing.
This is an extremely effective way of building trust and helping your dog through unpleasant situations such as temperature taking, medication administration etc.
Try to intercede with strangers wanting to pat your dog, too, if you know your dog doesn't enjoy it. It's okay to say, "Oh, he doesn't like head pats but he loves treats! Here's one." Once their hand is full of a way to interact with the dog they're usually pretty happy.
...And if an adult human keeps patting a dog after being warned that they don't like it... well, serves them right if they get growled at. The important thing is that your dog is very unlikely to bite, because you've taught them that a growl is more than enough to warn a human away.