Walking near the dog park one day, I heard shouting and barking dogs. One man was angrily yelling, “Get your dogs,” and the other frustrated owner was hollering back, “They’re friendly!” Then I saw the problem—one dog was hiding under the picnic table, tail down, ears back, and the other two were dancing around it, tails up, barking.
How can two dog lovers come to such misunderstanding and conflict about dog play? After all, don’t all dogs want to play and have fun? The simple response is, yes, all dogs want to play (some more than others), but not necessarily with other dogs or people.
Fundamentally, all animals, including people, have a need to feel safe and secure. To enable that emotional state of being, each of us is born with a psychological personal space or comfort zone where we can feel relaxed and playful. Like people, dogs have varying tolerance levels toward people and dogs within their space. Their responses may differ depending on where and when that space is violated, and by what or whom.
The key to peaceful dog-dog and dog-people encounters is to be mindful of an animal’s need to feel safe. We should be observant of the signals the dog gives during a social encounter.
To help the public understand how important this need is for some dogs, we now have a useful and memorable acronym, DINOS, or Dogs In Need Of Space. DINOS—a name devised by a popular blogger tired of having to pick up the emotional pieces of her dog—gives us a language to explore the problem and the solution.
What exactly is a DINOS? He or she may be a youngster, adult or senior, timid or pugnacious by nature or by learning. A DINOS may be well socialized and trained or in need of some education. Some are just plain crabby about sharing their person and space that day.
What DINOS share is an unsettled and uncomfortable emotional response to another dog or a person entering their space before they are ready for the encounter. When someone approaches, the dog succumbs to an intense rate, which leaves the dog unable to process the approacher’s intent, or how best to respond to the situation.
When emotions hijack behavioral tendencies, trouble follows.
For example, well-meaning dog lovers often walk toward an attractive or cute dog, wanting to pet it. However, the dog may think you are an alien or incredibly boorish. Their response may be to run, hide or bite, as animals often do when afraid.
The opening paragraph illustrates another common scenario when one or more dogs are off leash and not following rules for polite play. In that interaction, the two barking dogs may indeed be friendly, but they are not being perceived as such by the dog under the table.
In fact, the fearful dog probably thinks they are wolves looking for a meal. That’s the reality for that dog, right or wrong.
How do we prevent an emotional hijacking if we own a DINOS? What can we do as dog owners to make sure we and our dogs don’t become space invaders? In the next few columns, I’ll offer some tips for training, information about good and bad play behaviors, and suggest people etiquette that will make our encounters safe and fun for all.
Augusta Farley raises, trains and competes with Belgian Malinois dogs and runs Best Friends Pet Resort & Canine Academy in Patterson. She also hosts a Patterson-based nonprofit dog shelter, Westside Animals for Adoption, on her property.