By Suzanne Clothier

Sitting quietly on the mall bench beside my husband, I was minding my own business when the man approached. I glanced up as the man sat next to me. He was a bit close for my comfort, so I edged a little closer to my husband who, busy reading a book, ignored me. Still feeling a bit uncomfortable with the strange man so close, I then turned my head slightly away from him, politely indicating I was not interested in any interaction. To my horror, the man leaned over me and began licking my neck while rudely groping me.

When I screamed and pushed him away, my trouble really began. My husband angrily threw me to the ground, yelling at me "Why did you do that? He was only trying to be friendly and say hi! What a touchy bitch you are! You're going to have to learn to behave better in public."

People all around us stared and shook their heads sadly. I heard a few murmuring that they thought my husband should do something about my behavior; some even mentioned that he shouldn't have such a violent woman out in public until I'd been trained better. As my husband dragged me to the car, I noticed that the man who had groped me had gone a bit further down the mall and was doing the same thing to other women.

This is a silly scenario, isn't it? First, anyone who knows me knows that I would never be in a mall except under considerable duress. More seriously, no rational human being would consider my response to the man's rudeness as inappropriate or vicious. By invading my personal space, the man crossed the lines of decent, civilized behaviour; my response would be considered quite justified.

That my husband might punish me for responding to such rudeness by screaming and pushing the offender away is perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of this scenario. If he were to act in this way, there would be no doubt in the minds of even the most casual observers that his ego was of far greater importance than my safety or comfort, and that he was sorely lacking even rudimentary empathy for how I might be feeling in this situation.

Fortunately for me, this scenario is completely imaginary. Unfortunately for many dogs, it is a very real scenario that is repeated far too often. Inevitably, as the owners who have allowed their dogs to act rudely retreat from the situation, there are comments made about "that aggressive dog" (meaning the dog whose space had been invaded) and the classic comment, usually said in hurt tones, "He only wanted to say hi!"

While there are many frustrating aspects of being a dog trainer, one of the most disturbing scenarios is the situation where a dog is acting appropriately but nonetheless is punished (in the name of "training") by humans who do not understand what constitutes normal canine behavior and responses.

Sadly, normal behavior is quickly labeled "problem" behavior, and the dog is now a "problem dog." Depending on the skill and awareness of the trainer or instructor, the dog may be merely puzzled or irritated by well meaning attempts to desensitize or re-condition the behavior or actually punished quite severely using any number of horrific and senseless techniques.

During an off-lead play session at our camp, two adolescent dogs began to roughhouse at top speed, resulting in one of them crashing hard into an older dog who'd been minding his own business. With a loud roar, he chased the offender for a few steps to make his point: "Watch where the heck you're going!"

A few minutes later, with the game still going strong, we watched as that same youngster found himself headed once again on a collision course with the older dog. It seemed another crash and altercation were inevitable. To the surprise of many who were watching, the youngster used all of his skills to avoid the crash, neatly swerving past the older dog who made no comment. The puppy had learned that no matter how excited he might be by the game, he still had an obligation to be polite.

We would look with a raised eyebrow at a mother who allowed a child to simply carom around a room bouncing off people and did nothing to calm the child, and who told those her child had shoved and pushed that, "He's just over excited." Just as parents bear some responsibility for their children's actions, dog owners have a responsibility to help their puppies act in an appropriate way - not to excuse rudeness.

Sometimes, this requires that we not allow a young dog (or a dog of any age) to escalate to such a high level of excitement and arousal. As a rule of thumb, the more excited and emotional a dog becomes, the less capable they are of thinking clearly and acting appropriately. (This is also true of all other animals, including people.) Wise handlers know that when emotions are running high, a cool down period is a good choice to avoid problems. Sometimes, helping a young dog learn what is appropriate requires the assistance of a normal, well socialized dog who can make his or her point without leaving anything but a clear message imprinted upon the puppy.

Normal dogs, like normal people, are often incredibly tolerant of the antics of youngsters. The tolerance level is highly individual and dependent upon the dog's experience with puppies. Dogs without much experience with puppies may not be nearly as tolerant as dogs who have seen a lot of puppies come and go.

Tolerance levels are also highly dependent upon the youngster's age; there are different expectations for what constitutes appropriate behavior at any given age. What we might find acceptable behavior in a 3 year old child would be frowned upon in an 8 year old. Dogs also have a timetable in their heads - puppies under 16 weeks of age can usually take appalling liberties with an adult dog. As Dunbar notes, there appears to be a "puppy license" of sorts, possession of which entitles you to be an utter pest without much repercussion. Past the age of 4 ½ months, the "puppy license" expires as hormone levels shift and psychological changes occur. At this point, adult dogs begin to gradually insist on more controlled, respectful interactions from youngsters.

No matter what the breed, no matter how much genetic manipulation may have muted or inhibited certain behaviors, a dog is a dog is a dog. And the basics of dog-to-dog communications remain the same: a growl means back off in any breed's language, a tail held high and stiffly is a warning, rolling over on your back is an apology, etc.

My experience has been that it is owners of breeds considered non-aggressive that cause the most problems in dog-to-dog interactions simply by being unaware that their dog is rude. To the owners of non-aggressive breeds, there doesn't appear to be any thought that rudeness can take many forms. Anyone can recognize that a dog lunging and snarling is being rude. Far too few folks recognize that simply getting into another's dog space - however sweetly and quietly - is just as rude in the world of dogs. Owners of rude dogs do not perceive their dogs' actions as rude; they see only "friendliness," as if the behavior for greeting people is the same as greeting another dog - it's not! Thus the classic line, "He's only trying to say ‘hi!'"

Like people, dogs have varying thresholds for what I call the "fool factor." Consider yourself in this situation: you are walking down the street, and a group of loud, noisy teenagers - busy at the center of their own world - bumps into you and knocks you down. Do you smile at them? Do you mutter, "Watch where you're going!" as you brush yourself off? Do you get quite vocal in expressing your displeasure?

All depends on your tolerance threshold. It also depends on your mood, your health, the various stresses at work in your life, etc. Imagine that you had just won the lottery moments before they bumped into you. Chances are pretty good you'd be far more tolerant than if you'd just come from a meeting with the IRS. What if you'd been mugged a year earlier by a similar group of young hooligans? Chances are good that you might view this group as potentially dangerous, again altering your possible response to their rudeness.

Our dogs are no different. Each dog - no matter what the breed - has his own tolerance threshold, and that threshold is variable as a result of many factors, including basic breed characteristics. Some breeds have been selectively bred to have a very high tolerance threshold because they are asked to work in large groups. Fox hounds come to mind as a breed specifically selected for tolerance of other dogs. Generally speaking, the guardian breeds by their very nature and job descriptions are not meant to work in groups and have a stronger sense of personal space, thus are usually much less tolerant of rudeness.

Bad experiences can make a dog quite sensitive to rude behavior by other dogs. From the dog's point of view, there is the very real possibility that such rudeness could become an actual attack - it has in the past. Health problems can also affect a dog's tolerance level. A dog who is in pain (whether just muscle sore from hard work or play, or from a disease such as hip dysphasia or the creeping onset of arthritis) will have far less tolerance than he might when he's feeling fine.

We cannot expect our dogs to be saints - at least not until we can rise to that level of tolerance ourselves. And that's unlikely to happen any time soon. We can expect our dogs to be tolerant to the degree that we educate them, socialize them and protect them - with respect to their individual needs and boundaries.

To my way of thinking, a critical part of the relationships I have with my animals is this promise: "I will protect you." And to the best of my abilities, I do not violate this promise in any way.

A few years ago, I was invited to be part of a fund-raising dog walk. One of my duties was to lead the entire group on the first lap of the walk. I had chosen my oldest bitch, Vali, to accompany me. As we waited, hundreds of dogs and handlers assembled in the park. Many of the dogs were quite excited. Some dogs were only under borderline control. Vali laid quietly at my side, watching it all with great tolerance.

One particular dog caught my eye - a huge yellow Labrador who was dragging a small child behind him as he ploughed through the crowd. I watched as this dog marked not only every tree or bush he passed, but also several pants legs of unsuspecting people. More aware handlers quietly gathered up their dogs and moved out of Mr. Rude's path, thus avoiding potential altercations.

As he moved closer to us, I saw Vali's head turn toward him and become quite still. Her eyes began to harden as she assessed - quite accurately - just how rude a dog this was. I could see her contemplating possible responses should the Lab be so rude as to invade her space (which in such public settings is perhaps 2-3 feet from her body). The only intervention necessary was to gently touch her on the head and say, "Yes. I see him. And you're right - he is rude. I'll handle it." Then I stepped slightly in front of her so that if he approached, he would have to first come through me. Immediately, Vali relaxed and went back to watching the crowd in general though she did keep an eye on Mr. Rude. Fortunately for us, Mr. Rude veered off to hassle another dog and the
moment passed.

There were other ways I could have responded. I could have seen Vali's very appropriate response as potential aggression, and told her harshly, "Leave it!" To my way of thinking, that does not acknowledge or respect her feelings; it merely demonstrates my own fears about losing control of my dog's behavior.

I could have ignored the subtle signs that she had some concerns about Mr. Rude, and waited until he invaded her space then punished her for defending herself against rudeness. To my way of thinking, that would violate my promise to protect those I love, and then add insult to injury by punishing her for protecting herself. Keeping that promise to my dogs means that I am obligated to watch for any sign that they are beginning to feel concerned about a situation, and to act quickly to eliminate or minimize their concerns.

Unfortunately for many dogs labeled "dog aggressive," a weird loop begins to form between dog and handler in the struggle to deal with this behavior. Understandably shocked when their dog exhibits any kind of aggressive behavior, the handler begins to scan the world at large for anything that might trigger that behavior again. They become hyper-alert to any potential situation, and upon sighting a potential problem, grab the lead with a death grip in order to control their "aggressive dog."

Their own concern coupled with the death grip escalates the dog's anxiety and aggression, usually resulting in precisely the behavior they sought to avoid in the first place. Far more insidious, however, is the message sent to the dog whose handler pays intense attention to the world at large but none to the dog himself!