Can't She Just Get Along?

When it comes to being around other dogs, our Lilly, the Boston terrier, can get a bit coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs!

Sometimes, she’ll bounce gleefully off her front legs then whine and strain forward as we might while greeting long-lost family at the airport. Other times, she’ll emit a gargling growl and spin in circles until she lifts off the ground like a Tasmanian devil. On still other occasions when a dog approaches, she gradually shortens her stride and lowers herself to the ground in what I call her Crouching-Tiger-Hidden-Dragon pose. This is followed by silence and intent staring – never a good thing.

Lilly is very particular in her reactions; the same neighborhood dog always elicits the same reaction. For the life of me, I can’t understand why. She seems to have it in for feeble, old males who couldn’t harm her if they wanted to. Size doesn’t matter as both Chihuahuas and Dobermans have incurred her wrath. The dogs themselves are relatively calm and serene in Lilly’s presence.

Though Lilly’s antics vary greatly, what varies little is the reaction of other dog-walkers. Most say nothing, but the rolls of their eyes and shaking of their heads as they sharply divert across the street or pivot into a U-turn speaks volumes. At the end of the day, I feel a bit like the parent who’s called into the principal’s office because their darling child just can’t get along with others.

With the exception of two nurtured doggie friendships, in our “hood,” Lilly is bad news.

Of course, I would love to understand why Lilly reacts in these ways; though the possible reasons – poor socialization, a bad experience before we adopted her – are far less important than doing something about it. My wife and I wanted to “deal” with this issue while we were in basic training with Lilly. However, we became complacent in her obeying fundamental commands and deferred to our trainer’s philosophy that it’s the dog’s relationship with their owners and other humans that’s really important, not her relationship to other dogs: “She doesn’t have to live with them,” our trainer said, “But she has to live with you.”

This idea never sat well with me. How Lilly acts with other dogs IS important, because, well, my wife and Lilly and I are part of a larger community! People and their dogs walk together. And because almost as many American families have dogs than not, we are hard-pressed to walk the width of a driveway without encountering another dog-inclusive-family.

I want us to live harmoniously with other families.

Yes, we’ve used our own evasive tactics to avoid unpleasant interactions. We’ve interrupted Lilly’s stares with countless clicks and treats. But these techniques just seem to manage the symptoms. They do not treat the source of the behavior. Moreover, there are so many blind corners on our street that surprises are inevitable. And Lilly cannot redirect once she’s flipped into a frenzy!

Reading from a wealth of credible authors and on-line resources has been reassuring. It helps to understand, for example, that walking toward each other on the sidewalk is not a dog’s natural mode of introduction. The direct line of approach and eye-meets-eye encounter can be perceived as an invitation to brawl. And the more they feel our apprehension and on-leash restraint, the more anxious and/or hostile they may become.

Off-leash dogs, on the other hand, tend to “circle” each other, drawing concentrically closer to one another, glancing at each other peripherally. They may then choose to draw close and sniff, or back off and pursue another social milieu. How well dogs behave from there can be further complicated by the fact that dogs have their own, specialized body language (and that some species are better equipped to send and receive these messages than others!). More on that topic in a future blog.

No one has the perfect child – or the perfect dog. I know we’re not alone in trying to figure this out. I know that armed with a behaviorist, a well-socialized animal companion and a methodical plan, we will soon hit the road toward canine good citizenship.

In the process, my wife and I hope to become better citizens, too.


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