My high school friend Gregg recently remarked on Facebook, “Do you have something that secretly makes you happy? Mine is that my dog loves to play with me more than she loves to play with dogs.”
I am really glad this came up, because I haven’t seen a non-canine-professional make this sentiment in a long time—maybe ever. I mean, even Gregg thought it was something he should keep secret.
But why? Why would anyone need to be “secretly” glad of something that makes sense? Because it doesn’t seem like it should make sense.
When I was 6-ish, our family bought a dog. There was a Siamese cat already in the house when I came into the world, but there had never been a dog. My father’s colleague Tom Carter apparently kept insisting that “kids need to grow up with a dog,” but neither of my parents had ever had dogs. It was the early 70’s and dogs as indoor-dwelling, vaccinated and vetted pets weren’t a new phenomenon, but it wasn’t high on my folks’ radar until Tommy wore them down. He knew a breeder, see. She and her husband bred Springer spaniels. (I imagine him explaining to my parents that they made good family pets, yadda yadda. He was a persuasive guy, funny as hell, a bit wacky, and very memorable. The story I heard about the tragic end of his life years later is that he basically became a cat hoarder, stopped taking his medication for whatever mental illness he had, and died inside his house in Peachtree Hills where he wasn’t found right away.)
So Hanna the puppy came into our lives and set the stage for my ultimate career, I suppose. Tommy wasn’t wrong; she was a lovely dog and a great family pet in a home where I came and went fairly freely, and both my brothers and I had friends in and out regularly. We took her to a training class (required by the breeder, as I recall) and, as my Basic class students may recall hearing, she did well. My brothers will likely argue with me whose dog she really was; at turns she slept on all our beds (not simultaneously) and while I tell the story that I was tasked with her main caregiving, I’m sure they helped some while my Mom did the most. But I did walk her frequently, and I took her on many woodsy adventures with me, because I was outside 98% of my free time. I had friends, and we often played outside together, but she was my main companion most of the time, and we spent hours and hours roaming those woods, often alone.
I never recall her playing with other dogs until we got a Lab puppy a few years later from our cousins in South Carolina. And she probably didn’t enjoy that rambunctious puppy very much. She wasn’t dog aggressive, she just wasn’t put in situations with dogs often and it wasn’t what she (or we) knew. She didn’t play with our neighbor’s dogs, and our neighbors’ dogs didn’t play with other dogs, either. There were no dog parks, playdates, or doggy daycares; if you went out of town, someone you knew and trusted came over twice a day and let the dog out and fed her, or you boarded her at a kennel or the vet’s office where she had her own cage and didn’t socialize with other dogs at all. (And no matter how much fun I had on the random vacations our family took, the excitement of getting home, throwing suitcases inside and piling back in the car and racing to the vet’s before they closed to pick up Hanna, who would be brought out from the back by a tired-looking kennel attendant was often the thing I anticipated the most because when she saw us kneeling on the floor in the lobby and realized we were Her People, her whole body would burst forth, yanking that flimsy kennel lead from the tech’s hand and she would bound forward, nails skittering on the slick floor, and slam into our arms with abandon, both of us so happy to be reunited, her licking and whining and wagging furiously and me, well, crying—kind of like I am right now, remembering as I type.)
Somewhere between the time I was that wandering, sometimes alone kid-with-dog and now, dog owners and would-be dog owners gradually allowed themselves to be indoctrinated into the idea that dogs needed to be around other people’s dogs–strange dogs–regularly. It wasn’t enough to have multiple dogs in your home—you needed to take your pooch to dog parks and maybe even daycare where he could “play with the other dogs.” I suppose this was borne of the idea that hey, we encourage our kids to play together and make friends and it’s healthy for them to have these social relationships so they don’t become weirdos, and our dogs are like kids, so…
But dogs, while they may be like kids, are not kids. They are indeed a social species like we humans are. And many of them do adore being around their own species; dogs are evolved to communicate flawlessly with their own kind and so much of that communication is to present themselves to “strangers” as filial, friendly, non-threatening, and fun-loving. Watching healthy dog play is like hearing a symphony you adore or watching a well-loved movie. It fascinates and delights us, trainers and owners alike. It buoys us, settles us, makes it seem that all is right with the world.
But somewhere, the knowledge that many dogs enjoy the company of their kind became a “knowing” that playing and frolicking in group settings with dogs they do not know should trump other interactions, especially interactions with people, even their own people. Out of this revelation sprung a proliferation of dog parks and playdates and daycares, many of the latter being run by well-meaning people who were ignorant about dogs, sadly. And once these bastions of doggy togetherness sprang into being, there was no stopping the tide and the emotions that went right along with it. Having a dog who didn’t go to dog parks or daycare became an anomaly, and dogs who didn’t care for the company of other dogs became pariahs, sources of shame for their hapless owners, who were always on the outside, looking in. (Dogs, like humans, can be particular in regard to with whom they want to socialize. The overarching belief that dogs should just “love every dog they meet” is faulty and even dangerous. I have written about this in the past.)
The idea that dogs require the near-constant company of their doggy peers to be fulfilled is so pervasive that when I instruct my students that this is false, they are generally incredulous. The ones who have dogs who don’t act happy at the dog park, or who have acted aggressively when dogs got too close on walks, or who have actually gotten into fights with other dogs are, within short order, relieved to know the truth. Several of them have cried upon hearing that their dog’s “introversion” wasn’t their fault and wasn’t necessarily something they needed to solve. Just as humans and other primates can be selective about our companions, so can dogs.
NOTE: I have many canine professional colleagues across the country who run training-based daycares, and several are world-renowned for their ability to actually help dog-shy and dog-aggressive dogs enjoy the company of happy, balanced canines. It’s not a simple process and it takes time, preparation, knowledge and skill (no, you don’t “just let them work it out”) and it doesn’t always work. But it often does, and when it does it benefits the dogs and their owners, who can now enjoy more social outings without worry. I have nothing but respect for these professionals and their methods, and in fact I often wish they were in my town so that some of the people I work with could benefit from this transformation.¹
But when the potential danger of a dog’s dislike of, fear of, or desire to physically confront other dogs isn’t a factor, you are looking at a situation where Rover simply doesn’t care to interact with strange dogs at all, for whatever reason, and is not a danger to them—he just prefers people (and possibly dogs he lives with/knows well). This is a common situation.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this dog. You do not need to fix him, or feel sorry for him, or worry that he will become the Unabomber.
Let me repeat, louder for those in the back: There. Is. Nothing. Wrong. With. A. Non-dangerous. “Introverted” Dog.
Because we, his people, can meet this dog’s social needs.
That’s right! With some motivational training, good timing (which is a skill that can be learned), and an understanding of how dogs perceive the world, you can have a dog that prefers you to other dogs. Instead of a dog who ignores you completely when out and about, and drags you hither and yon to be closer to dogs or other people besides you, and who forgets you exist when other dogs are anywhere in the vicinity, you can have a companion who will follow you anywhere.
And this, good people, is what you really want. It is! This dog isn’t magical, or even one-in-a-million. Having this type of relationship with your dog is obtainable if you understand why it is preferable and you find the right trainer/method to help you accomplish it.
All of my students want their dogs to be well-behaved, sociable, and happy. When I tell them that teaching their dogs to pay attention to them above all else is the very best, lasting way to achieve this, I think some of them flat-out don’t believe me. And when they don’t, they simply do not get the training benefits they seek, not fully. Most will do the work to get to an acceptable baseline for them, and then they either stop, or just coast on that foundation. As long as they are satisfied, there isn’t much I can do to convince them that they should strive for more (though I always try).
99% of the time, these are people who really enjoy the fact that their dog loves other dogs and will play all day, so why would they take that away from the dog? And if you are wondering, yes, there is a big emotional tie-in for these people regarding sociability, though that doesn’t take anything away from them being perfectly fine individuals who want what’s best for their dogs. Their dogs are not suffering by any means, and I am not condemning their choices. It’s the people who are missing out, really, because they won’t understand the depth of love that can exist between a dog and her person without this deeper work, but that doesn’t matter to them because Max is happy, sociable, well-cared-for, and passably behaved. That he actually prefers other dogs he doesn’t know to the humans he lives with who care for him isn’t a concern to them.²
And if something isn’t a concern to you, why would you change it?
So, in conclusion, Gregg, let me just say that most of my colleagues and I share your delight and you need not hide it. It’s a benefit to both you and your dog and something of which you should be proud.³
¹ Teaching a dog-phobic or dog-aggressive dog to “like” other dogs is, in many cases, not necessary for that dog to be fulfilled. Does he need to tolerate the presence of other dogs on leashes as everyone moves through the community? Absolutely. A dog who menaces other dogs while out for necessary constitutionals and who would likely attack them if the leash slipped off is a danger and is going to hurt, or kill, other dogs. So intervention is not a luxury here. But will he ever “like” other dogs? Hardly. So your best bet with this dog is to restrain him securely, train him to pay attention to you and look to you for instruction and guidance, and basically ignore other dogs in favor of you…pretty much the same thing every dog owner should be doing anyway.
²At least, it isn’t a concern until his doggy obsession creates a major problem for his owners in the form of large vet bills for him, or large medical maladies for them, or expensive and embarrassing tableaus that can no longer be ignored. If you’ve never heard a dog literally screaming with excitement when she sees other dogs, it is, shall we say, noticeable.
³ Unless the reason your dog prefers you is because of severe Separation Anxiety. Basically, if your dog “prefers” you because she cannot function at all when you are not present, this is not “preference,” it is toxic need, it’s unhealthy, and you need a canine professional to help you help her. **
**If your dog is like this, and instead of working to help her, you actually take comfort/delight in it because “she needs me so much” and it makes you feel better to be that needed, despite the fact that she is miserable much of the time, you also need a professional—a professional therapist. I say this with gentleness and respect, Dear Reader. Dogs are amazing companions and can be wonderful emotional support within reason, but they should never be expected to suffer for us. It is borderline cruel to expect it of them.