Sunday, March 7, 2010

Greeting Rules

For someone as hung up on dominance as Cesar Millan, I was quite surprised to read that he lets the dog initiate greeting and advices the person to allow groin sniffing till the dog is done. You’d think that someone who corrects a dog for a trivial infringement like stepping ahead would pay more attention to something as major as entering one’s private realm.
True enough, regardless of species, it is always the subordinate who approaches a superior, but only after an invitation. Never does an underling invade space of someone above on her own terms.
If I’m in a crowd to watch the arrival of a visiting VIP, it is up to the VIP to set the rules for a possible interaction. She can ignore me or shake hands and chat, pass me by or invite me to tea. The VIP signals if, or if not, I may approach closer. If yes, I do so observing the correct cultural rituals, and hang around until the VIP decides that the visit is over. No VIP has the right to disrespect me, beat me up or order me around, but can completely dismiss my existence, and I presume that’s what she’d probably do with insignificant old me. A VIP is superior and knows it.

In Millan’s world, dogs are allowed to dismiss all those rules and he calls it leadership.
In my world, and as a mindful leader, I observe those rules. I decide who my dogs can greet and for how long. If my dog wants to say hello to a stranger, she communicates that to me with eye contact. I then check with the stranger if interaction is wished, and if yes, I give my dog a release command and she can go and greet.
Greeting should always be under command control. Once permitted, groin sniffing should be allowed also, but in reality dogs that feel very comfortable meeting people often don’t sniff there because they don’t need the extra information to feel safe. The need to groin sniff indicates a bit of uncertainty.
With dogs that are conflicted about a stranger; switch between feeling curious and insecure, NOT greeting should be the default behavior. In fact, ideally strangers should be irrelevant, inconsequential for every dog.
As long as a stranger has a meaning, the dog is compelled to check him out. Especially if the owner doesn’t take action and offer clarity and guidance, she’ll approach and sniff, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she is friendly or relaxed. Decreased distance to the person increases the conflict a fearful dog is already in, and that increases the potential for aggression.
It is like someone with a fear of heights who’s brave enough to climb a ladder but freezes halfway up. The stranger handing a treat out won’t make it any better. Quite the opposite: the food-motivated dog has even more conflict now, because she wants the treat, but not the hand that holds it.
But even if a dog is bombproof friendly, the same greeting-by-permission-only rule should apply. Unbelievable but true, there are humans that don’t like even the sweetest of dogs in their personal space and might act erratically or aggressively, and then the dog counter reacts, maybe just with anxious barking, but sadly in our society it doesn’t take much for a dog to get a “dangerous” or “attack” label. For her own protection, a dog should never greet a person, or dog, on her own terms.

We are a: lots of affection, a good amount of exercise and no discipline family, but that doesn’t mean that we tolerate being imposed upon. Our dogs communicate with a moment’s hesitation, lowered body and lowered wagging tail that they want to interact with us – and wait for the invitation we signal with a nod. And that has less to do with dominance and submission, but with being polite and respecting personal space. I don’t like to be bowled over by any other family member and expect nothing less from Davie and Will. Polite signaling that intimate cuddling or play is desired is a good habit to have, and good habits are best practiced at home.

The more of a behavioral issue, the more rules and rituals ought to be observed. They become less important if the dog is confident, obedient and well behaved.


  1. As always I learn something new from you Silvia - I had no idea that the crotch sniffing is a sign of insecurity! And this is why I send the really tough cases your way ;) Thanks as always for the insight!

  2. Why are there no dog training TV shows using positive reinforcement? People need to see another alternative. Is it just because I have basic cable and only get Cesar and Brad? (I'm NOT a fan of either)Is there anything else out there?