Phoebe and I live in Tidy Lawn, USA, a town that is sadly also home to many adolescent dogs that haven't been allowed to play with other dogs. The culture of dog ownership in this average American suburb just isn't sufficiently informed for pet owners to understand the importance of puppy playtime. Too many of Tidy Lawn's dogs, therefore, are nice enough dogs for whom canine body language is an unfamiliar, barely spoken tongue; well-intentioned klutzes who bound into playgroups like runaway steamrollers.
Thanks to lots of early socialization with her Genabacab Border collie aunts and grannies and Gordon setter uncles and cousins, Phoebe is a fluent reader of canine body language. She knows when a very young puppy wants to play, but not too much. She knows when an old lady doesn't mind a sniff or two, but has no interest in a raucous game of keep-the-stick-away. She adores wrestling and mock-fighting with her best pal, Lily the poodle. The canine klutzes, however, those non-socialized young dogs that abound in Tidy Lawn, are really beginning to get on Phoebe's nerves.
I've been fairly relaxed about letting Phoebe play at the park with any dog who comes along, confident in her ability to assess and respond appropriately. If she is able to tell another dog to back off, so much the better. I can bird watch and daydream while Phoebe manages the canine situation. Lately, however, her communication with a dog here and there, always some unknown, over-enthusiastic teenager, moves swiftly from merely a raised lip to raised hackles, fierce snarls, and bared-teeth snaps. "Dammit, you dope," I imagine her saying, "don't you speak DOG?!"
I know that Phoebe is dealing as appropriately as she can with inappropriate behavior. These occasional reactive displays are simply a sign that Phoebe is growing up. She will be two years old in a couple of weeks. Phoebe is just insisting on being treated with more respect and less familiarity by strangers than she did as a puppy.
And yet, the worry creeps in, just as it would if one of my boys finally slugged that obnoxious bully at school. It should be okay, but what if it's not? Perhaps this turn in her behavior is more than frustration with klutzy dogs. Could it be she's been tumbled enough by dogs that don't know play etiquette that she's beginning to doubt her own ability to communicate subtly? Could she be leaping straight to aggression, the most overt form of canine communication?
Whatever the reason, I don't like to see my sweet-tempered, capable dog snarl and cringe, even rarely. She seems distracted and antsy for a while after such an encounter. Neither of us wants these events. What to do?
First, I'll do less daydreaming and more dog watching in the park. Whatever the reason for the behavior, I don't want her to rehearse it. And I want her to know that I will protect her from obnoxious dogs. So, we'll avoid groups of unfamiliar dogs for now, and increase play dates with trusted friends. We'll bring toys and clickers and treats on our walks that are just as interesting and rewarding as other dogs. I'll scour her environment for any aversives that may be making her feel vulnerable. Has she been scolded by my husband or one of the boys? Have I been so busy that she's not receiving all the communication she needs from me? (I will also try to deliver the message to the dog owners we meet in the park that dogs have elaborate rules of etiquette, and jumping all over another dog before being properly introduced may not be welcomed.)
Meanwhile, Phoebe and I will increase our weekly clicker training sessions both at home and at the park. While she is unsettled and distressed after an unfriendly encounter with another dog, after a clicker session, however, Phoebe is calm and relaxed. No matter what we've worked on, the training provides a session of clarity and success. And that, I hope, will bolster her confidence in every other encounter she has-even with dopey suburban teenagers.
Postscript: Time explains all. Phoebe has just come into her second season. No wonder she's been out of sorts!