Written by Rebecca Hanlon, Speak Dog
How good are dogs at communication? I often hear what great teachers dogs can be for each other and I totally agree. The right dogs can teach things to each other that far surpasses any skills we may have. But, as with everything, context and individuality play a huge part in this.
I regularly witness dogs who do not listen to others. Dogs who struggle in social situations with other dogs. Dogs who give conflicting signals due to feeling conflicted themselves. And dogs that are now fearful around other dogs due to bad experiences. These bad experiences can be one dog trying to play when the other is uncomfortable, it’s not always about fights. I always feel dogs are stuck between two worlds. They have still kept many of their natural instincts but have also been been living alongside humans for thousands of years and been selectively bred for hundreds. This selective breeding also means that we see many varying traits between breeds. This includes play styles. I used to often put my rough playing puppies with slightly older pups as when they engaged with pups their own age their play scared the life out of many of the other dogs. Each dog also has their own communication style. Just like us, they have a common language but within this they all have their unique ways of communicating. Not all dogs are social butterflies. Some people are party animals, some avoid people as much as possible and many are somewhere on the social spectrum between the two. Our dogs are no different.
This is why socialisation should always be on our dogs terms not on how we wish they would be. Can you imagine being someone who doesnt like large social gatherings and being constantly made to go to parties. Or someone who loves socialising and never getting to see your friends. Dogs are also allowed to not like other dogs. Do you like everyone you meet? Does everyone you meet become your best friend? I see far too many people trying to get their dogs to say hello. We need to listen to their needs not try and enforce our desires of having a social butterfly of a dog.They are not wild animals that should be left to their own devices. Dogs can’t always sort it out amongst themselves. Many wild animals can do serious damage to each other and can kill in disputes. Dogs do not always make wise choices, we sometimes have to support them with the choices they make.
I also believe that their communication is severely hindered by us. They can spend long amounts of time away from others. Do not have the freedom to roam and meet on their own terms. Have fences, leads and other equipment on them that can change the way they communicate and cause frustration. We are their guardians, and yes we want to give them as much freedom as we can but we also need to advocate for them, support them in certain choices and keep them safe. We also, I feel, have a duty to support other dogs feel safe too. Letting our big, friendly dog, bound up to every dog they meet can seriously damage other dogs emotionally.
As lovers of dogs we should recognize that they are all different and not just have empathy for our own but also empathy for others. It’s not always easy to know when to step in and diffuse a difficult situation or calm rough play. Its lovely to see dogs interact and we can learn so much from just observing. For me though, if I have any doubts, I advocate. It’s my job to protect their emotional wellbeing as well as their physical.