Dogs are similar to humans with respect to ‘vetting’ those who approach. In fact, they are generally much quicker at deciding who they like or dislike than their human parents are. Maybe dogs can tell a book by its cover. In fact, Dr. Brian Hare, who founded the Duke University Canine Cognition Center, states in his book, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think, that dogs’ social skills and understanding of their human companions can be stronger than those of chimpanzees. Dogs are experts at reading human body language and pick up on signals we may be unaware we are sending.
There are many other reasons a particular dog may instinctively have an aversion to a certain person, including:
- History of abuse or trauma. If you’ve had your dog since he was a puppy you know how he was socialized because you did it. However, if you didn’t adopt him until he was older you may be unaware of what transpired in his early years. He may have been traumatized or abused, leading to wariness about people and a disdain for certain types or people or for a particular gender or appearance.
- Strange behavior. By “strange behavior” we are referring to behavior by the human your pup has taken a dislike to. Dogs understand how humans normally behave and are very good at noticing behavior which is out-of-the-ordinary, strange or unusual. This can include the way someone moves, strange vocalizations, and behaviors we humans would categorize as “suspicious”. A study on how dogs perceive human faces by Laura V. Cuaya, a researcher at the Institute of Neurobiology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, concluded that dogs, like humans, have a specialized region in their temporal cortex which enables them to visually process and recognize human faces.
- What signals are you sending? If you generally praise or reward your pup for ‘protecting’ you by lunging at others or think it’s cute when your four-legged baby acts jealous or possessive when you are holding him, you may be encouraging the anti-social behavior. It is up to you to make sure your pup doesn’t feel it is necessary to act aggressively toward others and knows that you are not in any danger or in need of protection.
- Natural territoriality and protectiveness. Dogs can be both territorial in their usual space and protective of their humans so may react badly to anyone who appears to be either encroaching on their space or acting in a way which may be perceived as threatening to their human. Behaviors which could trigger protective behavior in your pup include a sudden lunging hug or over-enthusiastic greeting. Dogs are also generally good judges of character so if your pooch consistently doesn’t like someone, for no apparent reason, then you may just want to be more cautious around that person. When your pup is consistently alarmed by a particular person he may have a very good reason for reacting so strongly. An article in the journal, Animal Cognition, titled “Do Dogs Follow Behavioral Cues from an Unreliable Humans?” concluded that dogs really can determine when someone is misleading them.
Not everyone is lovable or even likable – to you OR your pup.
It’s naïve for humans to assume their dog is going to automatically warm up to every stranger who comes along and wants to pet him. People don’t spontaneously embrace unfamiliar people so why would we expect our dog to?
Think about your own reactions to specific people, which are based in large part on their appearance, body language and/or your past history with them. This determines how you respond to that person. Based on these factors, you either like the person or are instinctively distant and keep the individual at arm’s length. The same goes for animals. Dogs are perceptive and smart and easily distinguish between people and adjust their behavior accordingly.
Much as we love them, men and children can be intimidating and annoying…kidding, just kidding! Sort of…
Adult humans are significantly taller than dogs. Men with deep voices sometimes alarm dogs who may be naturally submissive. Dogs may perceive men as threatening and dominant and they may become aggressive (or submissive) as a result. You must have noticed that the most successful ‘voice’ in approaching a new dog is high-pitched, more feminine and softer than the norm.
Children may also be seen by dogs as capricious and unpredictable annoyances who don’t know how to behave in what your pup considers to be a suitable way. Children may not have yet mastered the art of “gentle” and may not understand the concept of personal space – for their parents and for their canine siblings. This apparent ignorance can annoy all but the most passive pup and cause behaviors which, to our eye, seem to indicate that your pooch doesn’t like children. This may not necessarily be the case so analyze the situation and use it as a good training moment for both your two-legged and four-legged kids. Also remember that your pup may need quiet time and personal space so make sure she has her own ‘safe’ space to go to when she needs a bit of down-time.
You know what they say: Trust your – or, in this case, your pup’s – gut.
Dogs are very good communicators and if we humans would only pay better attention to what our canine companions are trying to tell us, we would probably be able to avoid situations in which our beloved pooch reacts badly to someone. Canines let us know what they like and dislike and may actually give us humans a head’s up regarding individuals who shouldn’t be trusted. The best advice is to be in the moment with your pup and pay attention.
There are many good books out there about animal cognition. Here is a list, with reviews, of some of the top sellers.
Respect my personal space and stop sticking your hands in my hair!
Not all dogs like to be petted, although most humans seem to think all dogs love the attention. Just think about it this way: Would you want a total stranger to stick his hand into your hair and scratch your head unless you invited that attention? Not to anthropomorphize our animals, but some dogs just don’t want to be touched by strangers. If a dog likes being petted he will let you know by nuzzling your hand – or other body parts – in an attempt to get you to initiate or resume petting. If your pup doesn’t like being petted he won’t engage with you and will keep a polite distance – personal space you should respect. In fact, if a dog doesn’t like to be petted, he may turn his head or entire body to the side, lick his lips, move away or look away, duck his head, scratch, lift a paw, growl or snap at you – a surefire sign he wants you to leave him alone. Another good indicator that the pup in question is just not comfortable in whatever situation you are putting him in is ‘whale eye’. Read on to learn more…
Beware the Whale Eye
What in the dickens is whale eye?
You’ve probably seen it but didn’t know there was a term for it, and perhaps didn’t recognize what the ‘whale eye’ was communicating to you. This term is used by canine trainers to explain a dog’s body language when he turns his head away from you but keeps his eyes fixed on your or whatever is upsetting him. The result is that you can clearly see a good part of the whites of the dog’s eye, creating a sort of half-moon appearance.
When a dog is feeling tense, uncomfortable or uneasy you may see the whale eye. It is an indicator that your pup is anxious, nervous or feeling threatened and may therefore become aggressive or demonstrate other anti-social behavior. If you see the whale eye as you approach a dog, back off. You should be cautious anyway about going up to dogs who don’t know you, especially if they are showing signs that they won’t be particularly receptive to the interaction.
What to do if a dog obviously doesn’t like you?
If you sense a dog doesn’t like you because he is displaying certain behaviors, calmly back away.
Indicators a dog doesn’t want you to come any closer include standing with his feet resolutely planted in a defensive manner, intense, staring eyes, ears pinned back against his head, bared teeth, growling, snapping and lunging. Also note if the dog is holding his tail straight and high, even if it is moving slightly from side to side, this is a sign that he is on high alert and not necessarily feeling friendly toward you.
Many of us have been in this situation at one time or other. Back away slowly, do not run or make eye contact with the annoyed pup and try not to show fear, although it’s rather difficult to conceal that you’re shaking in your boots, but try your best to remain composed.
Body Language Primer
A group called Dogs for Defense has published this very handy “Dog to English Translation Chart” which provides visual images showing what a dog looks like when relaxed, calm and neutral, anxious and nervous, alert, aggressive, playful, dominant, frightened, submissive and excited. The AKC uses the same chart to educate the public on reading canine body language. While our pups are experts at reading our body language, we humans can sometimes be a bit oblivious to the messages our four-legged companions are trying to give us. However, by being in the moment and paying attention, you should be able to pick up on most canine cues and behave accordingly.
Bottom line: While you may never figure out why a particular dog has it in for you, at least you can recognize the signs that the pup has an issue with you and just respect his space and leave him alone.
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