Why does my dog love some dogs and hate others?
Q: My dog, Luella, has the strangest reaction to dogs on the street. From a block away, she can tell if she likes the approaching dog or not and will either try and drag me over there, all wiggles, or will instantly have her hackles up, barking at the other dog. Other times she'll brake, and when forced along will give wide berth, almost refusing to pass the other dog, skirting the dog as though scared. This judgment takes place at such a great distance, often before the other dog seems to have taken any notice of her whatsoever, that I wonder what it is she's reacting to and what her judgment is based on. Any insight? -Tracey, Boston, MA
A: Dogs, even those who are properly socialized to other dogs, don't like every individual they meet. If you think about it, this isn't the least bit surprising. Most people who are socially competent do not like every single person they meet either. In fact, many people who function okay in society like only a select few people. Dogs do seem to make rasher, faster calls than people do, which brings up the "at a distance" thing. Sometimes the approaching kid is clearly upwind, so Luella is getting a whiff loaded with information- sort of an olfactory personal ad: "spayed female, chicken for breakfast, come too close and I'll hand you your head."
There may also be body language going on of the welcoming or dissing variety. Dogs don't see detail or colour as well as we do, but they're really good at movement and at reading "Dog," even in very small fonts.
If I had to bet, I'd say some of her snap judgments are also based on profiling: a certain category of dog bugs her and her prejudice causes the pre-emptive reaction. I had a Border Collie, perfectly nice to most dogs and tolerant to virtually all, that hated Standard Poodles. At a distance. In silhouette. In any haircut. Extrapolated from one slightly irritating individual on one occasion.
I also suspect from Luella's brakes and berth that she may be fearful of certain dogs, which is something you may want to seek help for. ■
Jean Donaldson is the founder of the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers and author of several books on dog training and behaviour, including Dogs are from Neptune and The Culture Clash.