Most of us are craving connection. Craving being sociable. And not just verbal, but physical connection. Even anti-social introverts like me are missing hugging people. None of the lockdowns have been easy, but I think that many of us have found this last one the hardest. It came on the heels of so much separation. Of fear. Worry. For ourselves and others. But today is the start of a re-emergence from, if we’ve been lucky, our cocoons. We are allowed to meet up to six people. Not indoors yet, but outdoors and even in gardens. It seems so weird to be writing ‘we are allowed’. For citizens of the UK, the concept of requiring permission to live a full social life is an anathema.
We’ve been living with these restrictions in one form or another for over a year now. And rather than it getting easier to resist the temptation to touch somebody else, I think it’s harder. How many of us will have to fight against the urge to step closer and make physical contact with our friends and family? How many of us will fail? Even when we know we shouldn’t. When we understand the reasons. And the potential consequences. Welcome to your dog’s world!
A huge factor in dogs being such popular animals is their sociability. The great Sue Sternberg has done lots of work looking at the factors affecting adoption choices in rescues. Time and again, sociability has come out as the most important trait even when people weren’t aware that this is what they were selecting. How often have you heard people say ‘She chose us.’ Or ‘He took to us right away.’ What they are describing is sociability. The desire to make contact, connection.
I know that it’s an important element for me when choosing dogs to join my family. My dogs are first and foremost companion animals. Yes, we train and enjoy numerous activities, but most of the time is spent just being together. I have to be honest. If it wasn’t for my dogs I don’t know how I’d have made it through this last year. And I know I’m not alone in that. So I specifically look for dogs with high sociability to people. Dogs who actively, and that’s important, choose to interact with me.
More than that, I choose dogs who want to interact with everyone. Until last year, my job had some highly sociable elements. My dogs would attend workshops I was teaching. Spending time in the car but also in the hall, they had the opportunity to meet lots of people. Sometimes they got to work with other people. Cherry in particular has helped several handlers who were unexpectedly dogless on the day of a workshop.
They come to conferences too. And are in their element in a room filled with hundreds of people. I recall one event where a kind delegate offered to hold Ella while I worked Cherry. She was sitting at the back of the room. But as I talked I could see Ella working her way towards the front of the room. Table by table she greeted and snuffled and snuggled with as many people as possible until she finally made it to the stage. I have to say, her timing was impeccable. She arrived right on cue.
Ettie is like her ‘sisters’, she loves everyone. But for half of her life her access to other people has been restricted. She was about 6 months old when we went into LD1. She had been to one scent workshop with me. She’d been on one weekend break. And she had one experience of somebody staying overnight in our house. I had managed to get out and about with her to let her experience as much of the world as I could. And with the help of Amie who took her to lots of places that I wouldn’t normally visit, such as Point to Point events, she had a pretty solid, if short, period of socialisation.
And thank goodness for that. Had we delayed, or not made certain decisions, her experience would have been severely limited. As it has for many of the ‘lockdown puppies’ born in this last year. Crucially though, the more social a dog is, the less impact these restrictions will have made. Their high desire to make friends helps them cope with new experiences with less anxiety. And more bounce back than dogs for whom meeting others is an unwanted chore.
Some people prefer low sociability in their dogs. But more often than not that is because they are selecting for work. They need a dog who has the innate skillset that allows them to excel at a particular job. For example, border collies working in remote areas don’t need to be sociable. The prime requirement is that they can herd sheep and work with one or two people. Dogs who live in kennels dogs can do better in that environment if their sociability is low. And dogs who are predominantly used as guard dogs benefit from being wary of strangers.
However it’s a fallacy to assume that all working dogs are anti-social. When I was a Customs handler, temperament wasn’t really considered when selecting a detector dog. I knew of multiple handlers who were the only ones who could work and care for their dogs. But it was eventually understood that not only was it more practical to have a dog that could be walked and cared for by colleagues, but it was a necessity when working in areas with high numbers of the public. Rather than consign the ‘biters’ to searching cargo sheds, all Customs dogs now need to be friendly and sociable. This allows them to work in multiple areas without being a liability to the department.
In the main, sociability is desirable. But it does come with some downsides. We all dread the call of ‘He’s friendly, he just wants to play’ as an unleashed dog comes hurtling towards us. Sociability does come with some cultural guidelines. And just because a dog is sociable with people, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she is sociable with other dogs. Nobody, human or canine, wants to be jumped on by a dog they don’t know. Many people don’t wanted to be jumped on by a dog they DO know. But teaching good canine ‘manners’ isn’t easy. And now, when connection is so limited, it is even harder.
The perfect dog
Imagine the perfect dog, automatically sitting by our side whenever we stop to chat. Or to welcome someone into our home. Or perhaps to go into someone else’s home (those days will return) When we give the word, the dog calmly wags her tail and allows the human to pat her on the head, before taking herself off to bed or lying by our feet until it’s time to go. Ask yourself two questions:
- How easy is this to teach?
- How does this picture change when looked at from the dog’s perspective?
Of course, both questions are inextricably linked. Dogs with lower sociability find it preferable not to interact. And so are easier to train not to jump up or even acknowledge anyone other than their guardian. But what of the sociable dog? Of course she wants to interact. She wants to be touched, stroked, even patted if that’s all that’s on offer. Teaching the dog to give calm greetings is asking a lot. The payoff for controlling their desire, even their need, to make contact has to be high. A biscuit will not do the trick. Frustration can quickly build. That in turn tips the dog from excitement into arousal. Which makes it even harder to encourage less intrusive interactions.
In my experience, a good option is giving the dog an alternative activity when around people with whom they must not interact, e.g. someone who is frail or afraid or a stranger. Playing the ‘find it’ game where she searches for treats on the ground is a particularly successful strategy. (You can find out how to play ‘fin it’ in my Detector Dog manual) If the dog’s nose is down she is less likely to jump up. She can be steered away from the person by tossing the treats in various directions. This increases the distance between dog and person which reduces the opportunity for contact.
It’s important to provide the dog with alternatives to jumping. If you either don’t teach her an alternative behaviour or a behaviour that you’d prefer in place of jumping, it’s hard for the dog to figure out what you want from her. Punishing the dog is not a good way to teach her what you’d like her to do. Giving her the option of making a great and viable choice will often give greater results.
While there are those who dislike dogs or, as above, cannot be near them, there are also those people that we would prefer our dogs avoid. Any positive reinforcement for jumping up, or onto laps, or licking all over the face will be greeted enthusiastically by the super sociable dog. For some, fleeting eye contact is the equivalent to a bowl full of sausages. And while we struggle to teach our dogs to behave in an acceptable manner, these people will detrain the dog faster than we can retrain her.
These are the people who either flap their hands, shriek and/or hop from foot to foot when the dog comes near them. Or who tap their chests, laugh when the dog knocks them over and is positively delighted when the dog starts humping their leg. The very best option for training your dog around these people is to avoid all contact. Put your dog in a different room with a stuffed Kong or other food dispensing activity toys. Ask your partner to take her for a walk during planned visits. Or pop her on lead at a safe distance from the detrainer.
You may notice that dogs who never jump on their guardians (unless invited) may still jump on visitors or strangers. That’s because the guardians have not reinforced the behaviour. And may even have taught the dog alternatives, such as fetching a toy to play with so they can interact without touching, or taking themselves to bed or placemat where they will be greeted and fussed. Pre-empting the behaviour and having strategies in place will get great results. So coming pre-armed with food treats to play the ‘find it’ game, or placing a favourite toy at the front door to pick up on entry to offer to the dog are excellent ways to teach alternative greeting behaviours.
Asking others to ignore the dog unless four paws are on the ground, or moving away if the dog jumps on them, more often than not ends in disaster. People are often not compliant, for whatever reason. But their non-compliance with your requests for assistance in teaching this these tricky alternatives will result in frustration all round. So with those people, just keep your dog away from them.
Cut some slack
And here’s where I’m going to put out a plea to everyone who meets a sociable dog in the next few months. Give them some slack. Dogs too have been deprived of social contact. They are excited to meet you too. They too have missed the laughter, the touch. It’s fun meeting people. Our dogs are happy, delighted, excited to see you. They are behaving how I suspect many of us would like to behave. I’d love to throw my arms around my friends and family. I’d love to squeal with delight as I smother them with kisses. Though I do draw the line at licking their faces! But you get the gist.
If you come to my house, my three will jump all over you. The small dogs will climb on the back of the sofa so that they can jump on your head to lick your face. Cherry will rub up against your legs depositing truckloads of small red hairs onto your trousers. They will trip you up as you walk along the hall and they will squabble with each other as they jostle for your attention. And it will be a good 30 minutes before I dare give you a coffee. Yes, I will encourage you to lift the terriers away from your face, to say ‘off’ and to be firm but fair as you veer from laughter to annoyance and back again.
Part of me will be frustrated. But another part of me will be happy to see them giving you such a fulsome greeting. I will start the process of teaching calmer greetings and more acceptable contact. I will prep Kongs and order chews. But for now, while we can’t be more dog, let’s just enjoy those ecstatic greetings, live vicariously and cut everyone a little slack.