Respecting Personal Space & How to Interact with a Dog
While almost everyone recognizes and addresses his pet's physical health, the same cannot be said for his mental well-being. Sadly, I’m not surprised as many people fail to recognize the importance of mental health in people, believing behavioral issues are character flaws rather than an illness. Behavior problems with pets are on the rise. Most often, they occur due to a pet's mental health and emotional well-being.
Every dog, like every person, has a personal space bubble.
I’ve modified a definition of personal space found at Oxford Languages to “Personal Space is the physical space immediately surrounding an individual, into which any encroachment feels threatening to or uncomfortable for them. An individual's personal space may vary depending on several factors; the environment, the individual(s) encroaching on their space, the emotional status and behavior of either party or many other factors.”
Each person defines his “personal space bubble” at any given moment, and every dog typically does the same. It is the responsibility of others to recognize the signals a dog or human is giving and to respect the other individual spaces. In other words, one is responsible for always asking for and receiving consent from a person or dog before encroaching into his physical space.
When a person invades the space of another; for example, hugging or kissing someone without first asking permission, he may, in some legal jurisdictions, be charged with criminal assault. Unfortunately, most people are ignorant of how a dog expresses consent or believe that a dog does not have the right to give that consent. These are often the people who are justifiably bitten. Ignorance is not an excuse for human-to-human misconduct, nor should it be an excuse for human-to-dog conduct.
Canine body language is all about saying, “Yes, you may come closer” (a distance decreasing signal) or “Stop, you are making me feel uncomfortable” (a distance increasing signal). A dog consenting to interact with you will approach you with a loose and wiggly body and an open mouth with the tongue hanging out to the side. Those are some of the visual cues he uses to say, “You’re safe; let’s interact.”
If a dog chooses not to approach you, that is one way of saying, “Please stop; you make me feel uncomfortable.”
Other visual cues that communicate “Stop! Stay away!” includes avoiding eye contact, blinking excessively, cringing, groveling, lifting one paw, lip licking, slinking away, rolling over, walking away, and yawning. If you see those signals, you must immediately stop your approach; if you fail to do so, the dog may bark, growl, lunge, snap, and bite.
The illustration below indicates how a dog's personal space may vary. The dog at the top is happy and relaxed, with a much smaller space bubble (red and yellow areas) and a much larger safe space (green area) versus the frightened dog in the middle and the angry dog at the bottom.
The higher a dog's level of arousal, the more space he may require. Whether you have a puppy or a gray-faced senior dog, it is your responsibility to know and monitor his body language so that you can intervene on his behalf anytime he feels threatened by a person or animal. Please show empathy in this situation. You may not see something as a threat, but if your dog does, that fear is genuine to him.
Dr. Sophia Yin’s poster and book, How To Greet A Dog and What to Avoid, are excellent resources to help one understand and interact appropriately with a dog. Other resources can be found on my blog at https://forcefreepets.com/resources-on-canine-body-language-communication/
Humans Often Do Things That Dogs Find Rude and Threatening.
Dogs are not humans on four legs with fur. As a species, their behavioral norms are programmed into their DNA. Humans also have deeply ingrained behaviors that most dogs, even some people, will find discomforting. Some of the more obvious are hugging and direct eye contact. Sadly, some humans have misguided attitudes towards dogs due to ignorance or an arrogant attitude of superiority. They believe they or anyone else can do anything to any non-human simply because, as humans, they are superior. Please, don’t be that person.
In the Spring of 2023, the San Diego Humane Society released a video, How Would You Like It, that illustrates the many things people may do to dogs that make dogs uncomfortable. These include: grabbing the dog, taking the dog’s food away, startling the dog when sleeping or resting, stealing a dog’s toy and teasing him, yanking the dog around, sticking a hand in the dog's face as a form of greeting, laying down on the dog when he is resting, greeting the dog by grabbing him and hugging him, invading the dog's space, and asking the dog to come closer and then grabbing and hugging him when he refuses.
Thank you to the San Diego Humane Society for this video. I encourage you to watch the video and share it with your family, especially children and everyone else you know.
To watch – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G775ppK3VEM
Don Hanson lives in Bangor, Maine, where he isthe co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) and the founder of ForceFreePets.com, an online educational resource for people with dogs and cats. He is a Professional Canine Behavior Consultant (PCBC-A) accredited by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board (PPAB)and a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP). Don is a member of thePet Professional Guild (PPG), where he serves on the Board of Directors and Steering Committee and chairs the Advocacy Committee. He is also a founding director of Pet Advocacy International (PIAI). In addition, Don produces and co-hosts The Woof Meow Showpodcast,available at http://bit.ly/WfMwPodcasts/,the Apple Podcast app, and Don's blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com.The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.