(Disclaimer: This topic was first discussed here, at Doggerel. All inspiration for this post goes to them, but the thoughts and opinions expressed here are our own.)
Whenever we are out walking the dogs, or just out in public with them in general, we are often approached by people who ask us this question: “Is he/she friendly?”
I should start with the positive. I certainly appreciate the respect of checking in with the owner, as opposed to rushing up to a dog hands-first. I recognize that this is the average-person’s way of asking for permission before they begin interacting with the dog. I should also say that at least in our area, we do not see a ton of breed discrimination. While I know other people have opposite experiences, I do not think that the majority of the times this question has been posed to us, it had anything to do with our dogs breeding or physical characteristics. And that is awesome!
On to the negative… what in the heck is my response supposed to be to such a question?! Of course, my dogs are polite, well-adjusted members of the canine society. They are certainly not mean or aggressive. The problem with such a question, is that the speaker is typically looking for a brief yes or no answer, and unfortunately for most dogs and their responsible owners, that is not a satisfying option. What does “friendly” mean to you?
In that small window of time when they are quickly advancing on my dog(s), potentially with a child or other animal in their immediate vicinity, how am I supposed to get across to them the specifics of my dog(s)’ personality(s)?
For example, Gaige is incredibly friendly, to a fault. So much so, that if not properly exercised and managed, she may accidentally enthusiastically knock over your small child. She may also cover it in kisses… is that something you are comfortable with? In more dramatic scenarios, she may overwhelm another dog and instigate it, oblivious to its warning signs. So while she is not at all aggressive with other dogs, she is not a dog I feel comfortable allowing to greet another dog on-leash, face-to-face without a slow introduction. So how would you answer that question with Gaige at the end of your leash?
As for Tonka, he loves people of all kinds. He will sit quietly and obediently for your child to visit. He is generally great with other dogs, but has had some bad experiences and can be a bit guarded or grumpy with new dogs, especially males, and especially when on-leash. However, I certainly don’t want to label him as being “un-friendly,” because that isn’t him at all!
Finally there is Georgia. Most of you know that she isn’t consistent in her reactions to other dogs, so it is easy to ask handlers of strange dogs to keep their distance. But again, I do not necessarily want her to be labeled as “un-friendly” just because she takes a little time to warm up. Further, she is as sweet as can be with people, and will happily lean up against you for a rub or snuggle. However, new people sometimes make her nervous. While I have never seen her act inappropriately with strangers, I never want to put my dogs in an uncomfortable position just because I believe that they will not react negatively. Conversely, when overexcited, Georgia may try to jump. As comfortable as some people say they may be with this behavior, it is not behavior that I want to condone or reward in my dogs. Just because she is “friendly” does not necessarily mean I want someone running up to her and loving all over her when she is jumping on them.
Aside from the difficulty in defining the term ‘friendly,’ as well as striving to quickly sum up the behaviors and preferences of our dogs’ interactions, it is important to note that this question is essentially asking for a guarantee as to your pets’ predicted reaction. NEWSFLASH: whether or not my dog is ‘friendly,’ that is not permission for you to advance and throw caution to the wind, with the assurance that this dog will react appropriately to your every action. It is important for us to remember that just because we have a thorough understanding of canine body language and appropriate behavior around dogs, does not mean that everyone does. So how do we quickly sum up the appropriate ways to approach our dogs, without sounding like a crazy dog person, or making our dogs look bad? Add into the mix that I am often walking multiple dogs at once, and you can understand why this question makes me bristle.
Fellow dog owners, do you get this question? If so, do you have a kind and succinct response to it? What do you prefer to be asked before someone approaches your dog?