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Saying Hello and the Need for Empathy

Imagine you are walking down the street, minding your own business and enjoying a leisurely stroll in peace and quiet.  Around the corner comes a parent walking their small (or not so small) child by the hand.  Suddenly, the child breaks free and comes rushing at you, waving a knife and yelling, “&^%#* you, go away!  %$#@&!  Get away, you %$#&*@!”  The parent shrugs, smiling as he or she says, “Oh, don’t worry, he doesn’t mean it.  He just does that at first, he’ll calm down.”


Of course, it’s nice to know that Junior isn’t likely to actually stab us while he’s hurling curses at our heads.  But none of us would think there wasn’t something very wrong—seriously wrong—with this picture.  Maybe the kid has his reasons—very good reasons.  Maybe he’s got issues, or was recently attacked by another kid, or he’s afraid of people wearing hats.  Maybe he never will stab anyone, ever.  None of that really helps.


The problem is, as greetings go, waving a knife and cussing isn’t friendly or even neutral.  It’s emotionally charged.  And emotionally charged greetings tend to elicit emotionally charged responses in the animal receiving them.  Which means by the time Mum or Pop have explained that Junior doesn’t really mean it and wouldn’t really do it, it’s far, far too late.  I’ve seen a knife, been cussed at and my heart is already racing.  Now I’m upset and I’m ready to fight back, no matter what excuses come out of the parent’s mouth.  I’m an animal with a Fight/Flight System, too, and one that will readily over-ride rational thought to protect myself from a perceived threat.  This is not, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


If we map this on to dogs… oh dear. 


As a professional trainer and a pet owner, I’m amazed at how much we have made a mess of this—in both directions.  On-leash reactivity—dogs that get overly excited, bark or lunge when they see another dog on leash—is one of the most common behavior problems that I and many trainers hear about.  And yet, I really wish we heard more about it.  If Dogs Greeting Badly is bad enough, maybe worse are the pet parents who believe:


1)  “Oh, well, Feisty is like that,” and since Feisty doesn’t actually stab anyone, it’s okay (especially if Feisty is a small-breed dog)

2)  gentle, well-mannered Sadie should tolerate that kind of crud from every dog she meets, because “good dogs” suck it up and ignore the knife and the cussing like Saint Lassie on a cracker


Alas, both of these views get me downright crazy, because with them we’re missing something.  Seriously missing something important.  And in a word, it’s Empathy.


Dogs are emotional animals.  They share with us and other higher mammals primary emotions like fear, anger, frustration and joy.  And as we learn more and more about our brains and emotional circuitry, one thing is becoming increasingly obvious:  an event doesn’t have to cause us physical injury to do real damage.  Traumatic events that result in great fear can do very real harm.  Fear, anxiety and other kinds of acute or chronic stress messes with our brain chemistry, derails healthy brain function and just plain hurts.  This is true for our dogs as well.


And dogs, like us, come in a wide variety and range of temperaments, abilities and social skills:  they are all individuals.  One of the hotter trends in canine research right now has to do with the notion of personality in dogs, and though researchers are still challenged by how to describe and capture the essences, pretty much everyone agrees that there are essences to capture.  Dogs vary greatly in traits like boldness/shyness (our introversion or extroversion), resilience and sensitivity, even optimism and pessimism.   So, as with people, one dog’s Traumatic Event may be another dog’s So What? and neither dog is a bad dog.   In behavior, the fairest comparisons we can find are either statistical or functional:  we can say if the response is typical/average (in the fat of the bell curve) and we can say something about if the response works—if it’s adaptive in the animal’s best interests and quality of life.  Judgments about “good/bad” or “right/wrong” don’t tend to get us anywhere helpful, especially when it comes to emotions. 


So here we are with Feisty nutting up on the end of a leash, barking and snarling while another dog walks by with her owner.   Let’s say Feisty’s owners let their snarling dervish drag them over because Feisty is always like that and anyhow he never bites, he’ll calm down.  Here’s what we know so far:


1.  Feisty is emotionally upset (calm, relaxed, happy dogs don’t bark, snarl and lunge)

2.  Feisty is sending emotionally charged social signals to the other dog (bark, snarl and lunge are neither friendly not polite)

3.  Feisty is rehearsing being upset and sending charged social signals (practice makes perfect)

4.  Feisty’s behavior is being reinforced (We know that because he keeps doing it:  behavior that’s rewarded increases in frequency, duration and intensity)


He’s always done it doesn’t make it healthy or normal.  He never bites doesn’t mean that what he does never hurts—if he’s scaring the snot out of other dogs and their owners, he can be doing real, lasting damage.  And to top it off, I seriously doubt that Feisty’s owners like or prefer the behavior—back to that in a moment.


Now, let’s consider the other dog—let’s say Sadie--walking by getting barked and snarled at—or worse, having the cussing or posturing dog rushing up in her personal space.  And here, we’re playing Russian Roulette with both dogs.


The whole point of greeting between social animals is negotiating consent to engage and enter space.  How much greeting and how much negotiating goes on depends on a host of factors:  familiarity, social conventions or rituals, desire to make social contact, skill and individual preferences among them.   If we—or the dogs—already know each other very well, greetings may be minimized to a fast swipe and cut to the chase-- “Hi!  You won’t believe what happened at work!” for humans and almost immediate play (or polite ignore) between dogs. 


If we’re less familiar or complete strangers to each other, we’ll probably go more slowly.  We see each other.  We nod or wave.  We say the right polite noises, shake hands, comment on the weather.  All the while, we’re assessing each other with three core questions in mind:  1) Are you safe? 2) Do you have anything I like or want?  3) Are you/am I willing to consent to this interaction?  The harder those questions are to answer, the longer we’ll take to negotiate—if it’s worth it to us.  If we’re not much interested in a hot date or deep conversation, the person seems a little sketchy or high maintenance, we’ll bail out at the earliest polite opportunity:  they may have something we like or want, but they may be dangerous or getting it is going to be too much work.  And we always reserve the right to withdraw our consent (most of us do try to be polite) if things go sour or slide toward places where we feel unsafe or not interested.


This is dogs all over, which brings us back to Feisty exploding at the end of his leash and Sadie walking by with her owner.   If the two dogs are brought into contact, Sadie—faced with an upset dog sending unfriendly social signals—is forced to make some pretty complicated social assessments very quickly:


A.  Is Feisty’s display for real—a real threat that she needs to take seriously?  (Are you safe?)

B.  Does she have any reason to want to interact with this dog? (Anything here I like or want?)

C.  What does she have to do to get out of this situation?  (How do I withdraw consent?)


Sadie’s decision challenge isn’t that easy, and if Feisty is suddenly in her face, it’s really not easy.  She’s startled or rushed.  She’s trapped on the end of her own leash and can’t get space.  Nothing about Feisty is immediately friendly or appealing, she doesn’t have any way of understanding the human assurances that Feisty always does that and he never bites, and if she’s like many mature adult dogs, the motivating desires that might counter-balance the safety/danger issues—the puppy urge to play or make new doggy friends--are long gone:  Feisty has nothing she wants.   Depending on Sadie’s age, confidence, skill, socialization, experience and personality, she may or may not have the ability to make the needed assessments, or make them that quickly--as with us, age, skill and experience matters.  If she’s a green, naïve or shy dog without a ton of socialization and experience dealing with the Feistys of the world, she may very well take his display seriously.  After all, he looks plenty aggressive to her.


Are here begins our doggy Russian Roulette:  All Sadies are not alike.  Even “Sadies” of the same breed, age, gender and experience are not alike.   I don’t know why we struggle with this so much, since we certainly know better about ourselves:  not every person of pick-your-stereotype is like that.  Worse, although any individual Sadie has a personality and history her owners recognize as “like her,” Sadie is a higher mammal with feelings and she can have a rotten day when she’s simply “not herself.”  And how she behaves will change with age and experience—things she tolerated or put up with in her puppyhood or adolescence may not go unanswered when she’s a fully mature and more confident dog. 


So in Feisty’s on-leash misadventures, he may encounter some or all of these Sadies:


1)  Confident, relaxed, experienced and highly sociable Sadie:  Oh boy, another exploding Feisty, bring him on, maybe he’ll chill out and be good for a play session after he gets a sniff.  (She’s safe and might even enjoy the encounter.)

2)  Confident, experienced and not-particularly-sociable but polite Sadie:  Oh crud, another @#$%&^ Feisty, let him sniff me quick so I can get back to chasing my ball. (She’s safe but won’t enjoy the encounter and if she runs into too many Feistys, her tolerance may wear thin.)

3)  Confident, experienced and not inclined to be polite Sadie:  Feisty has three seconds to sniff my bum and get over it before I take his fool head off.  (She will be safe for the allotted three seconds and she’s not enjoying that… after that, Feisty better cool it or else.)

4)  Confused, unskilled or for any reason inclined to take Feisty’s emotionally charged greeting seriously Sadie (super confident version):  I do believe that Feisty is challenging me to a duel.  Come closer, darling.  Sniff me.  Make my day.  (She will stand tall, look stiff as a board and then nail his sorry behind.  She may enjoy that part of it.)

5)  …For any reason inclined to take Feisty’s emotionally charged greeting seriously and get reactive herself Sadie:  OMG, what the heck is he saying?  Huh?  You talkin’ to me?  You talkin’ to me like that?  (By now, both dogs are lunging at each other at the ends of their leashes, so hopefully the owners won’t let them greet at all.)

6)  …For any reason inclined to take Feisty’s emotionally charged greeting seriously Sadie (shy version):  Oh no oh no he’s going to attack!  Help Help!  Maybe if I just shut my eyes and stay still he’ll go awaaaay… (Safe for the moment but fear is toxic and cumulative—leading to next.)

7)  …For any reason inclined to take Feisty’s emotionally charged greeting seriously Sadie (defensive version):  Oh no oh no he’s going to attack!  Help Help!  Get away or I’ll bite you… (She would love to run away, but she’s trapped on her leash and feels forced to growl, snap or bite him to get space.)


There are more Sadies in the Russian Roulette of dog greetings:  the point is, the longer and more frequently Feisty is allowed to act out or rush up with overly-charged emotional greetings, the more likely he will encounter some of the riskier ones.  Spin the cylinder often enough and the hammer will fall:  Feisty will rush up on the wrong Sadie, or a wonderful-until-now Sadie having an off day.  If he’s lucky, Sadie will pull her toothy punches and there won’t be any or much physical damage.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be damage, to one or both dogs and one or both owners.  Fear is toxic and cumulative, for dogs and people. 


The flip side of this is also true:  the more Feistys Sadie has to endure, the greater the odds that she’ll become more fearful, more sensitive, more inclined to take offense.   If nothing else, she’ll become older and like many dogs, less tolerant of the drama of poor social displays.  The more of these encounters she has to weather, the higher the odds that one day, she’ll have had enough already.  The weird part of this is, for some reason, an alarming number of pet owners blame Sadie for giving it back, including Sadie’s own loving and responsible owners.  Like somewhere it is written that Good dogs always take crap.  Feisty’s owners are often shocked and outraged because—sometimes after years of getting away with this greeting nonsense—another dog finally took exception.  Sadie’s owners wring their hands because their gentle Sadie is suddenly “aggressive.”  And here’s where we all need our Empathy Hats on—for everyone, dog and human.


Feisty’s owners aren’t necessarily bad, irresponsible pet parents—not at all.  They have a dog with a difficult issue for them.  They’ve learned to live with it, ignore it or be in denial about it because they don’t knowhow to fix it.  They may not even know that it can be fixed, or at least vastly improved.  They’ve resigned themselves and they’ve made up a soothing story to console themselves—usually some version of dogs like Feisty (breed, size, background, he’s a rescue, was attacked as a puppy, the list goes on) are just like that.  They’ve dialed down their Empathy Meter and no longer take Feisty’s emotions seriously.  After all, he never bites—it’s harmless, right?


Meanwhile, Sadie’s owners feel like they have a really good dog that suddenly snapped or attacked “out of nowhere” and they’re shocked and hurt.  And Sadie is a really good dog—so good that they’ve gone to sleep at their own Empathy Switch and stopped considering that maybe, just maybe, Sadie doesn’t want or like to have to deal with Feistys snarling in her face.  Any more than you or I want to deal with emotionally charged people yelling curses at us day in and day out.  Those of us who have jobs that require us to deal with difficult people on a regular basis better have—if our employers are smart—specialty training, plenty of management support and loads of compensation for doing it graciously.  If we don’t, you bet one day we snap, quit or storm off the job.  We burn out.  Good Sadies burn out too if their owners leave them dangling at the end of a leash with no specialty training, managerial support or compensation. 


And that’s really important to understand:  getting to Say Hello to Feisty isn’t compensation for Sadie.  Yes, many dogs enjoy greeting unfamiliar dogs—but plenty of them don’t.  And that’s assuming the other dog is friendly, or at least polite, and Feisty isn’t.  For shy, sensitive, often intelligent and emotionally tender dogs, getting to meet Feisty is a flat-out nightmare, not a joy.  Why would Sadie want to Say Hi to a dog that’s barking and lunging at her with bug eyes and hackles up?   Like, are we all thrilled to have to deal with a cussing customer with an attitude?


What Feisty needs is his owner’s help.  He needs to stop practicing high risk behaviors like barking, lunging or charging at other dogs and learn how to relax, ignore or be calm around other dogs.  Whether he ever bites or not, physically injures another dog or not, he’s going to scare some and some quite badly, and that’s a rotten thing to do to another dog that has feelings, too.  And sooner or later, he’s going to hit a Sadie that’s going to hit him back—and some Sadies can hit really, really hard.  Lastly, he’s not barking, lunging and carrying on because he feels good:  most likely he’s frightened, upset and socially confused, and his quality of life is suffering for it.  We don’t measure human suffering by how violent a person gets:  we understand that someone can be deeply unhappy, deeply frustrated, lonely, anxious or depressed without taking up murder or going postal.  Dogs shouldn’t have to bite to get us to notice their distress.  Empathy, please.


Sadie needs her owner’s help, too.  She deserves to be both respected and protected:  to never be forced to deal with Feisty without her own consent.  If she is put in that unfortunate position with no possibility of escape, we will all hope that she has the skill and understanding to pull her punches and do little or no damage.  But she’s an emotional creature, she has good days and bad days, days when her hips hurt, days when she’s nervous about an approaching storm, when another dog jumped her last week, and when it’s just one darned Feisty too many for her to cope with.  I’m sure if she could she would join us in feeling deep compassion for Feisty’s baggage—but it’s his baggage, not hers, and she shouldn’t have to be the victim of it.  If she isn’t a genuine fan of the Feistys of the Dog World, be her advocate. Give her an acceptable way to withdraw her consent if she doesn’t want to greet, like moving away, getting behind you or gazing deeply into your eyes with her “Please get me out of here” look.  Then, get her out of there.  She won’t have to snap or growl or bite if you hear her and act on her behalf.  Empathy.  Please.


Like many human children, confident puppies and adolescent dogs are often so eager to make social connections and play that they’ll rush in without a single thought about safety or consent.  It doesn’t seem to occur to them (until they’ve had a few learning experiences) that there are mean or grumpy people/dogs out there—animals that aren’t safe and might hurt them or that aren’t interested and don’t want to play. As with our human children, it’s up to us to step in and both protect and negotiate the best interests not only of our pups, but of everyone:  letting our boisterous puppy flatten a timid old Toy breed or bully a shyer pup with non-consenting “play” is no more acceptable than letting our wild teenager knock over Mrs. Wilson on crutches or dump paint over a younger child’s head.  Healthy social interactions and play are fun and consensual for both parties; if it’s not, stop it.  Don’t let your puppy or dog practice it, and don’t let your puppy or dog be a victim of it.


For shy puppies or socially sensitive dogs, protect them at all costs.  Exposing your good dog to a gang of “thugs” at a local dog park or over-bearing greetings from random dogs on walks is no more productive than sending your honor student to hang out with the wrong crowd or allowing your teenage daughter to be propositioned by random men.  Your shy, sensitive dog won’t learn anything you want him to learn from dogs with worse social skills.  Select play mates carefully:  gentle, friendly, socially polished dogs that can charm your dog, boost his confidence and teach him how much fun being with another dog can be.  Shy dogs need kind and patient canine mentors to blossom, special friends they can trust and count on.


Please teach your puppies and adolescents to look to you and wait for permission before greeting other dogs you meet on leash walks.  That way, you and the other owner can decide if you want your dogs to greet at all before the dogs are hurling at each other’s heads.  Having your dog learn that she has to exercise self-control, listen to you and calm down before she’s allowed to Say Hello will help take the emotional charge out of greetings and reduce the odds of unfortunate incidents.  If all owners would do that, there would be far fewer Feistys and Sadie wouldn’t have to snap at them. 


If another owner doesn’t want their dog to meet yours, please respect their wishes and give them space.  Yes, we know all dogs love me and my dog is friendly; maybe we have our reasons or maybe we’re just awful people.  No matter:  we declinedconsent, just like you asked if you could join us at our family picnic table and we said, no, thanks.  Most people wouldn’t dream of continuing to insist on a seat at the table, so I’m not sure why being asked to keep our dogs under control and out of another dog’s face is so danged hard for pet owners to swallow, but we can all remember this:  healthy social interaction is always consensual.  If someone, for any or no reason, declines to consent for themselves or their dogs, no means no isn’t rocket science.   It won’t hurt you or your dog to wave cheerfully and pass on by; it may get someone hurt if you don’t.


Consider the Golden Dog Rule: do not let your dog do unto other dogs what you would not want their dogs to do unto yours.  And no, small dogs are not exempt.  If you do not want my 65 lb. built-like-a-linebacker Catahoula mix to have a go at your tiny dachshund/Chihuahua mix, do not allow your little dog to have a go at her.   Many dogs don’t seem to have a good grasp of relative size; most of them are aces at self-defense and Tit-for-Tat.


Lastly, please don’t think that your dog has to meet every dog they see or love every dog they meet to have a rich and fulfilled life.  Some dogs, like some people, are social butterflies and are thrilled to go to parties and make new friends.  Most dogs, though, are like us:  the older they get, the more they enjoy the quiet predictability of familiar, compatible friends, quiet conversation over a glass of wine with a good buddy they know instead of wild nights at the dog park bar.  For those dogs, and shy or socially sensitive dogs, quality is more important than quantity, and less is definitely more.


There are wonderful books, programs and training exercises that can do much to improve Feisty’s public presentation, making him, if not a charming social butterfly, a polite dog that can keep his cool and let the dogs walk on.  Love is a powerful four letter word; for these dogs, though, help is a stronger one. 

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