June 2, 2016 by The Dog Rules
“He often used to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep and every path was its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.”
– Frodo Baggins about Bilbo, The Fellowship of the Ring
I sometimes think this is the way dogs view the world. Every time we take them along with us, it is an adventure for them. We check our phones for messages and they check the pee-mail. There is so much information out there that we are either incapable of detecting or that we merely take for granted. Dogs notice everything.
Sure, there are things and people who are familiar to them and so they react in a familiar and predictable pattern. That neighborhood kid on the bicycle that roars past and Fido just wants to chase him. The elderly neighbor who always speaks sweetly to your dog and wants to pet him so you find yourself being towed over to visit. Barking at the bus because a family member arrives home from work on that bus – well maybe not exactly that one but one just like it.
What about things that are clearly different, not ordinary, perhaps seasonal? Things that dogs perceive as being just plain wrong. Like when the weather changes and suddenly there are people carrying umbrellas (or wearing hats).
The first time Fido sees one he is likely to wonder what the heck is that thing that looks human-like on the bottom and has a Huge Weird Head! He may only grumble his “WARNING! Dangerous creature spotted!“. He may freeze in place and yell his alert. He may completely panic and bolt blindly away from this terror as you find yourself hoping his collar doesn’t slip off because he’ll be in the next county if it does.
What about familiar objects that suddenly appear in an unfamiliar way? I’ve watched dogs walk boldly by a trash can placed by the curb and that same can lying on its side will have Fido barking to call for reinforcements. Sure Mom & Dad carry umbrellas, but when Aunt Mary hits the button and the monster device deploys – ARRRRRAGH! the arrival of THE DOG MURDERER!
People take these things for granted. Yeah, they look a bit strange when you first see them and they aren’t really dangerous. And how is Fido to know that? Lets face it, Fido is operating at the level of a 3 or 4-year-old human (providing Fido is one of the bright ones). Why is it we automatically expect that he will understand that this is simply Aunt Mary (or someone else) carrying an umbrella or wearing a hat? If every other adult male he has met doesn’t have a beard, why is it reasonable to us to expect that the first man he meets that has a beard will be automatically okay? If your previously clean-shaven friend were to suddenly make an appearance wearing a full beard, wouldn’t you have a moment where your mind said “whoa, that’s John with a beard!” before you suppressed your micro-reaction and casually said (as though nothing had changed) “Hey John, how’s life treating you? When did you grow that beard?” while your brain is saying “geesh he’s got a beard now!”
Dogs take their world at face value. If they’ve (recently) seen people with umbrellas then they will likely roll with that image. If they are particularly fearful, or if they haven’t recently encountered umbrellas or men wearing hats and beards, they may react to what they perceive as threatening before their memory has time to resurface.
My dear Dog had what I called “seasonal adjustment disorder”. She had encountered numerous people with umbrellas and men wearing hats and beards. The catch is that umbrellas and hats are a “winter thing” (we live in Vancouver BC). Once summer and the heat arrive, many men choose to shave their beards and doff their hats. Dog could manage the changes once she had seen them a few times. It is like she suddenly recognized “Oh, this is rainy season and people have weird heads and this is the time men like beards” or “this is warm weather and people don’t look as weird” after a couple of encounters. She would then modify her guarding behavior (early warning system) and only go on alert if there were something “more weird” than merely their appearance.
In dealing with Shelter dogs. we have little idea as to what sorts of things they have seen and are, therefore, accustomed to. Some are able to take it all in stride. They are “bullet proof” and there is very little, if anything, that will upset them. Others clearly have insufficient life experience to prepare them for the “Big Weird Head” beings. The trick is to learn about the dog without causing them to totally freak out. I always take of my hat (and sunglasses) when meeting a new shelter dog. The shelter can be a scary enough place on its own.
Once the dog has had the opportunity to get to know me and I have managed to tog him up in his harness, I can usually put on my hat and take him for a walk without issues. This is not complete assurance that he will not “have a moment” where he expresses panic seeing a stranger with an umbrella or wearing a hat or beard. It just takes time. It helps immeasurably if the human doesn’t panic when the dog does.
The spring weather here has, so far, been unusually warm and dry and my foster boy, Drift, has been venturing out quite confidently as he recovers his strength. (I will post more on his recovery in the future.) The past few days have reverted to the more “normal” spring and the rain has resulted in umbrellas and lots of men in hats. Drift is busy sorting all this out. We’ve had a few overwhelming moments where he has looked at me with “the look” OMG MOM!!! DID YOU SEE THAT!!!!?????
As I sigh and yawn (dog calming signals) in silent reply, I think; “Yes, young Hobbit, I have. No worries.”