Every dog needs a friend, or: why social walks are so important

[Lees de Nederlandse versie van dit artikel]

Is your dog an only dog? Does he spend all of his time with humans? Do you ever wonder whether he is missing anything? He most likely is!

But you have more than one dog in your home, you say? So shouldn’t that be enough? Imagine you never had any close contact with any human beings besides your family. You might greet strangers or neighbours in the street when you see them. Would you call that a fulfilled social life? No? Neither would your dog.

“But he sees other dogs at the park almost every day,” you say. Are you perhaps encouraging him to “go play” with the other dogs? Do they get a nose-to-nose greeting because you’re steering your dog towards any other dog you see? Okay, that can be nice. But perhaps it isn’t nice for your dog at all. Imagine you walked up to every unfamiliar human in the street and gave them a handshake. Awkward, isn’t it? Would you start a conversation out of the blue? Go for a little run together? No? Most dogs wouldn’t either.

Strangers and friends

In fact, puppies and very young dogs might, just like human children, often spontaneously get along and start to play. Sometimes they don’t and shouldn’t be made to in that case – neither children, nor puppies, that is. But you may notice that things are different for a 14-year-old human or a 14-month-old dog, and very different for a 30-year-old human or 3-year-old dog.

When you meet a stranger in the street and you want to be polite, you nod your head or murmur a word of greeting. When a dog meets an unfamiliar dog in the street, the polite response is to curve around him and look away. A dog who runs straight up to another dog (often head and tail raised) does this either for lack of social skills – he never had the opportunity to learn what is polite – or because he is nervous about the other dog. He may want to check them out from up close to make sure that they are not a danger, or he may just have forgotten how to be polite out of nervousness. Or perhaps he wants to tell them in no uncertain terms to go away! Add two nervous humans and tense leads into the mix and you often end up with growls and flashing teeth. Not the outcome you were hoping to achieve for your dog!

When you happen to meet a friend, you will shake hands, kiss or hug. You stop and talk for a while and continue on your way. Or you meet your friend on purpose, you have dinner together and chat all evening. You’re content to have spent time with your friend. The same goes for your dog. When he meets a friend, they have a little “chat”. This may involve body contact, or it may not, depending on the personalities of the dogs as well as the situation or mood the dogs are in. Their body language and pheromone messages make it possible for them to communicate at a distance. When spending time together, they may enjoy playing with each other for a little while. But mostly, they do the things that dogs enjoy the most: they take in the world of scent around them by sniffing together. They walk together or just hang out while sniffing and communicating with one another. It makes them happy and gives them self-confidence.

“But dogs aren’t people …”

“…, so how can you compare this?” That is absolutely correct. As the examples above illustrate, polite dog behaviour is different from polite human behaviour. But we do have things in common: Both of our species have evolved to be very social, to be dependent on their social groups for food and for safety. We also depend on politeness and tolerance within our social groups. If we, dogs and humans, were constantly impolite to members of our own species, this would lead to conflict, which can at times endanger our well-being and even survival. Both dogs and humans need safety to feel at ease in their environment, and nothing is as safe as our familiar and polite social group. Being approached by an impolite stranger can feel threatening. Both we humans and our dogs have also evolved to get along with one another, and a dog-human friendship full of mutual respect and understanding can be very fulfilling for both parties. At the same time, we still appreciate spending social time with members of our own species.

My dog’s social life

So what does this mean for you and your dog? First of all, it means that your dog should never be forced or persuaded to approach an unfamiliar dog when the polite thing for them would have been to make a wide curve around each other and be on their way. Also, if your dog is showing signs of approaching a strange dog in an impolite way – watch his body language for signs, such as a raised tail and head, leaning forward, staring at the other dog –, he should be prevented from doing so, for the sake of all involved.

It also means that it would be a great idea to find your dog a friend – or even more than one. Go for walks with other dogs and make sure there is enough distance between all involved to allow for politeness, safety and communication through body language – long leads (at least three meters) and harnesses are the way to go. There is absolutely no need for crazy playing, which often just stresses the dogs and leads to a rise in tension. After a few gentle walks, sniffing the environment together, soon enough the dogs will become friends – and so will their humans! Sometimes, a friendship doesn’t work out – just like humans, dogs have their own preferences when it comes to whom they want to associate with and there is no point in forcing a relationship. In that case, you and your dog can just continue the search for a new friend. Once you and your dog have found a good dog friend, continue to meet them on a regular basis – your dog will thank you for it!


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