As a child, the first important piece of advice I was given, from my very first instructor, was “keep your dog out of other’s dogs’ spaces.” The reason for this advice was obvious to the seven-year-old me. Like people, not all dogs get along. Somewhere along the way, we have lost this bit of wisdom. The consensus seems to be that a well-socialized dog is one that shoves its nose into the face and tail end of every dog it encounters. And just like that one weird stranger who interrupts your conversation at a dinner party with an uninvited hug and handshake, we have a word for that. It’s rude.
Are there dogs who happily accept any new dog’s approach? Sure. I also know extroverted people who can make friends with everyone they meet. Most of us don’t land quite at that extreme, however. Some of us (Me! Me! Me!) are introverted, and the same is true for our dogs. That doesn’t mean our dogs aren’t well-socialized. They can coexist happily with other dogs, even play with them under the right circumstances. They just don’t want to be assaulted by strangers, and really, who does?
This approach also demonstrates a general lack of respect for the past experiences of the dogs on the receiving end of the unwelcome attention. Many dogs are rescued or adopted from less than ideal situations. You never know if the owner of that well-behaved dog you meet on the street has spent years cultivating that good behavior after a traumatic or neglectful experience. A single bad event has the potential to set back training and conditioning by months or years.
With that said, and I cannot stress this enough, even a dog raised in a perfect situation does not need to accept unwelcome assaults in order to be a well-socialized dog. We often work with owners who are upset that their small dog snaps at their friend’s rambunctious ten-month-old lab when it jumps on her head, or are confused that their old dog doesn’t want to play with the neighbor’s new puppy. Honestly, who can blame those poor dogs? A dog plays best with other dogs of a similar energy level and mental stage (not necessarily age). If you want your dog to be able to play, find the appropriate type of playmate.
Above all, the rudest thing an owner can do, when asked by another dog owner to “keep your dog out of my dog’s space”, is to respond with:
“Oh, no, they’re fine.”
That’s what the other owner is trying to communicate. The dog on the receiving end of the unwelcome attention is not fine. Maybe the dog has been attacked in the past. Maybe it has anxiety. Maybe it’s an introvert and doesn’t like having strangers’ noses under its tail. In the end it doesn’t matter what the reason is. Be polite. If you want to approach a strange dog, take the advice of your kindergarten teacher. Use your words, and ask.