Throughout this summer, to give back a little to the community that accepted and supported me for the last 4 years, I’m offering free of charge dog communication events. I live on Canada’s East Coast, so it’ll be like “whale watching with Angus”, only “dog watching with Silvia”.
The three sessions will take place at two popular off-leash parks, because unrestrained dogs, for better or worse, do what dogs do, which we will observe and I will interpret. We’ll probably see a lot play soliciting and play pausing signals, meant to prevent that the interaction escalates into something different. We’ll be watching bold, exuberant dogs and cautious ones; dogs wanting to play with everyone, others who are selective, and some who aren’t interested at all in connecting with their own species.
Not wanting to play with other dogs? Aren’t they all developmentally stunted wolves? At the core juveniles, whose highlight of the day should be a trip to the off-leash park? Simple answer: No. Dogs, like every other organism, go through all physical and mental growth stages, from puppy hood to old age, and everything in between.
True is that most canids are social by nature, and observations with feral and stray dogs suggest that they seek same-species companionship, but is that by choice, or necessity in lieu of a human friend? The question is: is a canine pal essential for a dog's welfare, or can a person adequately take its place? In my opinion, it depends.
There are dogs who never really graduate out of the sandbox, thrive being with other dogs and love playing till a ripe old age. On the opposite end are ones who exclusively want to hang out with humans. Often at a very young age they snub other dogs, consider them nuisance, not pal. I see that periodically with people friendly golden retrievers, velcro-type toys, and workaholic herding dogs - like the 6 months old Border collie I watched the other day, who was on the job with his human and the Frisbee and completely blocked out the juvenile Lab cross who tried every play soliciting behavior in his repertoire to buddy up.
But most dogs fall somewhere in the middle and benefit from having at least one canine friend. Typically, they gravitate to ones belonging to the same breed or group, because they share similar play styles and understand each other best. Like seeks like and meshes together.
Such was the case with two adult mastiffs I was hired to observe because the owner, who had just acquired the second one, wanted to be certain that their open-mouth wrestling, body checking and neck biting were friendly, not antagonistic, displays. Their interactions indeed appeared raucous, with fully exposed teeth and some vociferous growling, but it was play. How can I be so sure that it was? Because what looked and sounded intense was in fact very inhibited. Nobody got injured, and as soon as one yelped because her sensitive ear was caught, the other let off without leaving a scrap. He also let go when she rolled on her back and stopped wagging her tail. Without needing human interference, he understood that she needed a break and called it off and both, paws touching, settled beside one another, seeking closeness in play and rest.
True, proper play should be loose and fluid, and ideally excludes neck biting and collar grabbing. It should be a back and forth interaction, with one dog winning, then the other. But because of selective breeding and human manipulation, what kinda fun dogs enjoy can vary greatly, and stiff-bodies, jerked movements, and rougher contacts can fall in the normal category as long as all are willing participants. One of my friends, Adina MacRae, said it brilliantly: “Play behaviors are normal when all parties involved agree that they are”.
So, it’s okay if one dog is always the chaser and the other the chasee, as long as dog rules of play are followed: bows or toy teasing to initiate, pauses for a brief time out before things become too heated, and listening to back off signals. Nobody getting hurt even when the romping is fast and furious is an important indicator, because a playing dog has self-control. Arguably the single best sign that play isn’t turning serious is if the dog is still aware of her surroundings, including, in fact especially, the owner.
That was always the rule for my dogs. Regardless how much fun everyone had, if they were too pumped to pay attention when I called them, I cut in reminding them that I still exist, and then released back into play with a specific command - provided that everyone wanted to continue. If one dog avoided and turned away with a low tail, or anxiously had her hackles up, or tried to hump, I redirected mine into doing something else pleasurable.
Super social and goofy dogs, ones a tad more reserved and selective in the companionship they keep, and still others who tell every pooch who comes near them to get lost, I am sure me and my dog watching group will observe plenty. Perhaps we luck out and see wise, confident dogs with a lot of presence who keep an eye on the ongoings and gently split about to get out-of-control interactions, and maybe we’ll meet dogs born with a badge on their chest who impatiently order others around, even if there is no need.
What I am not so keen on, but we’ll likely see anyway, are owners grouped together yapping away, completely clueless what their dogs are up to.
Hopefully we won’t encounter disturbing stuff: a real fight, or a dog wanting nothing more than to get out-o’-there, like the young Leonberger we saw on our last excursion to the park. She was so afraid that she, ad infinitum, ran to the exit gate, just to be forced, with choke chain and leash, back in the group. Of course, flooding and not giving a rat’s tail how the dog feels is demonstrated on TV all the time, and my hunch is that’s where her owner learned how to deal with a dog's fears.
But even though coming across stupid owners is a possibility, I am really looking forward to the events. Offering them as a little thank you is only half the truth; the other is that I love watching dogs in their natural environment, which in our society are people’s homes, trails, and parks. I am doing myself a favor as much as anybody who will join me. If you live in my ‘hood, I hope to see you there. If you don’t, equip yourself with pen and paper and venture to an off-leash area near you, without your dog unless she's off leash ready and comes when called, and watch and learn. I highly recommend it.