Animals occupy space in a very deliberate way. This view affects what and how they choose to approach as well as how they respond when they are approached. This can be a hard concept to wrap your head around. When you “get it,” your success with dogs in general (not just your dog) will dramatically improve. You’ll be better able to charm, disarm, and win over a wide range of canine personalities.
Space is important to dogs.
The etiquette revolving around space is part of what enables a group of individuals to behave as a group….to live and function as a community….to survive and thrive. It is all very ritualized. For this post, let’s focus on the dynamics involved when one individual approaches another individual. When a group of dogs approaches a single dog (or you), other factors come into play…we’ll talk more about that in future posts.
There are 2 important things to remember about the ritualized nature of space and dogs.
- When you approach a dog and the space it is occupying, it is the dog that dictates what is appropriate, what is acceptable, and what feels right in any given moment. When dog A approaches dog B (and the space dog B is occupying), it is dog B that dictates what is appropriate, what is acceptable, and what feels right in any given moment.
- When a dog approaches you and the space you are occupying, you get to dictate what is appropriate and acceptable. When dog B approaches dog A (and the space dog A is occupying), dog A gets to dictate what is appropriate, what is acceptable, and what feels right in any given moment.
These social codes or personal rights are important. A breech or ignorance of these social codes often leads to a less than stellar result or exchange between two individuals. This happens because animals, by design, have a natural inclination to respond to (and have strong feelings about) breeches in this etiquette.
On a very basic and primitive level, dogs feel the personal space “bubbles” of many different species. We know this because the dog acts differently when it finds itself in someone’s or another’s personal space. Most typically, more intense and more emotional. The dog’s approach style can go from being calm and thoughtful outside the bubble, to quick, direct, and/or weaselly inside it. Whether it is approaching a prey animal (prey animal personal space bubbles can be thought of in terms of their flight zones), a human, a cat, or another dog, without training they behave differently.
So we know that dogs naturally sense, feel, or have some awareness of the personal space requirements of other animals independent of species and that space is important to dogs. Why then do they often barge right into the personal space of others? There are generally 3 reasons….
- A lack of impulse control. The ability to hold oneself back or exercise prudence is an acquired skill that is learned. While some animals are certainly naturally more impulsive than others and some animals are more cautious by nature or nurture, all social animals are wired to acquire and exercise self control (barring an animal that has a brain injury or defect). The ability to hold oneself back (keeping impulses in check) is actually a VERY important life skill to acquire. It can mean the difference between being socially agile, socially awkward, and a social bully…..being successful with (and around) others and being a dismal failure (with a side order of intense feelings and excessive stress for everyone involved).
- They are friends. Good friends can speak volumes and give consent to close contact and play with incredibly subtle, minute, and quick exchanges in body language. They can also transmit or broadcast open invitations to and around others they trust or want to interact with. Some dogs are certainly more “open” than others. Some dogs seem to know no strangers. In softer moments, dogs sometimes broadcast an open invitation for intimacy….lay with or on me (pig pile anyone?), mutual grooming, etc. During play, the signals they’re putting out are chase me, catch me, wrestle me, tug with this, chew this, etc. When one of the players stops to rest, cool off, eat, or drink, its broadcast also changes and the ritualized exchanges and expectations come back into play. The etiquette of “be aware of others” and “hold yourself back/together” leads to one dog noticing and (with enough practice) reading the body language cues of the other dog and responding in an appropriate, socially acceptable way.
- They are socially unaware at that moment. Maybe a dog is playing really hard and so focused/tangled up with one individual that it rams right into someone else. Oops! Maybe it is so fixated on something (a ball, a meal, the arrival of someone the dog love, LOVES, etc.) that others aren’t on its radar. Maybe the dog is devoting most of its mental energy to other things (pain management, the physical and mental challenges that plague old dogs, etc.). Maybe it is in distress. Maybe it’s caught up in a fight or flight moment.
Self control, as it relates to the etiquette and the give & take of space, is something dogs are meant and equipped to develop/acquire. A basic life skill that helps them thrive and function in a group, a community. It directly relates to their success, safety, and potential survival.