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Before meeting Sora for the first time, Dave warned me that she was a bit unsure of new people.
I wasn’t overly worried. I had grown up with cats and was always the neighborhood dog walker as a kid. Besides, I was an animal person. And animals knew that, so all animals loved me.
I pet Sora on the head upon our first introduction and took her face in my hands and rubbed away while Dave held his breath, hoping his dog wouldn’t lunge at his new girlfriend.
Fortunately, Sora behaved on this particular occasion and taking on the role of dog mama has taught me a thing or two about dog behavior.
What I didn’t know when I met Sora was how wrong my belief was that dogs would just automatically associate me with love, just because I loved them. Like many, I assumed dogs were friendly and never thought to ask the owner whether I could approach their pup. I began to notice dog walkers crossing the street when spotting us and others asked whether my dog was friendly for their dog to meet.
Sora spent her first three years transitioning from shelter to shelter, and given her behaviors then and her temperament today, her history suggests abuse and neglect in her younger years.
She ducks when strangers try to pet her head and barks when they stare at her. She growls when oogled at and dominates over other dogs. People with hunched postures threaten her and don’t dare walk into the house wearing a hoodie without announcing your arrival because that is scary to a dog who is very sight dependent. And she really doesn’t like children, no matter how gently they approach. Who could blame her? She’s never been around them.
When given time and respect, however, Sora becomes the sweetest, most snuggly dog you’ll ever know.
Sora will never be the dog we can take to play at the dog park or to our friends’ house with young kids. We can’t tie her to a post and make a quick run into the market or leave her for long periods with people who don’t know how to handle dogs like Sora. It’s up to us to keep her out of situations that will make her nervous.
Dave and I (mostly Dave) have spent many hours working with Sora to foster trust in humans and other dogs, though her behaviors still remain and emerge unexpectedly.
When people learn there’s a dog, not a baby inside our trailer, we attract a lot of attention and have come to rely on several practices that help us avoid situations where Sora feels uncomfortable. The following methods should alleviate some of the issues you may face when introducing your nervous dog to new people and dogs.
Whenever we know Sora will meet a new person or dog, we communicate that she is nervous straight away.
When new people know this about her, they are in a better position respect Sora’s boundaries and we avoid any awkward situations.
As we’ve traveled, we always make sure to learn the word “no” in the language of the country. Perhaps not the most polite way to say “please don’t pet my dog,” it delivers the right message when people inquire about meeting her.
Sora is highly food motivated, so we try to always keep a bag of treats on hand. When meeting new people, we hand them a few treats and ask them to have her perform a trick. Through this exchange, she associates strangers with reward and they show their assertiveness by making her work for her treat.
We also use verbal praise like “good girl” so when strangers pet Sora so that she relates the experience to an audible cue.
Hi, Nice to Meet You
Sora is a dominant dog and not always too keen on other dogs’ noses all up in her business. We can tell if she’s welcome to a new dog by observing her behavior. Indications she’s not open to a new friend include:
- Lip licking
- Stiff body stance
- Ears flattened against her head
- She “goons,” staring intently at the other dog
- Shifty eyes
- Her tail is covering her bum
When we recognize these behaviors in Sora, we do our best to avoid interaction.
Of course, roaming street dogs approach regularly and it is not uncommon to encounter the absent-minded dog owner oblivious to dog language. When the inevitable occurs, we employ the following to help communicate to Sora that things are OK.
- Praise her as the dog approaches.
- Try to stop the dog by putting up a hand in “stop” or making an “tss!” sound (like the noise a cymbal would make)
- Block her face from meeting the new dog
- Continue to offer praise while the dog is getting to know her.
- Use TTouch therapy on her chest
- Reward her with treats so she associates food with meeting new dogs
- If the other dog is set on smelling Sora’s behind and she naturally lifts her tail, we let this canine communication commence as we figure they know best how to talk to one another.
Oh, But My Dog is Friendly!
How wonderful that your dog is friendly! But mine’s not.
Just because your dog gets along with everyone and all others dogs doesn’t mean that mine will get along with yours.
Oh, but my dog just wants to say hello!
What a nice guy! But my does does not want to return the greeting.
It is not uncommon that we experience this situation, and when we do, we employ the tactics mentioned above. When the owner refuses to recall their dog, and Sora is still clearly wanting to dominate despite our positive reinforcement, we just have to let the dogs sort things out for themselves, hopefully teaching the other pup’s human a thing or two about doggie etiquette in the process.
From One Animal Lover to Another
As a fellow animal lover, I can tell you from my experience with Sora that no, not all animals love you just because you love them. It doesn’t work that way.
I’ve since learned how to interact with new dogs how to approach them so as to minimize fear.
- When meeting a new dog, always first ask the owner if the dog is friendly and whether you may approach.
- Kneel several feet away from the dog and extend your hand, while avoiding eye contact.This vulnerable position lets the dog know you are not a threat. Eye contact ascertains dominance, which the dog may perceive as a threat.
- Watch the body language of the dog, if his tail is wagging, it generally means he is friendly and OK to approach. If his tail is between his legs, it means he is scared.
- Growling or barking generally indicate fear in dogs. They are trying to protect themselves, their space, and/or their humans. They may eventually stop and trust you, but do not continue to approach a barking growling dog.
- Pet the dog under his chin and not over his head.
- Use a high-pitched and/or calming voice when talking to the dog.
- Don’t make sudden movements; approach slowly.
While it is certainly tempting to want to bathe every adorable dog in the love you feel for them, resist the urge until you have received confirmation either from the human or from the dog itself that it is all right to approach. Dogs do not understand that just because you are a vegan-eating, animal-loving person with four pets at home means that you will not cause harm to them.