Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Sniffing Bits

I am always surprised and a little saddened when I meet yet another dog-owner who tells their dogs off for sniffing other dogs' bits. “That’s disgusting, Fido. Stop it!”, seems to be a common reaction to one of the most important rituals of canine greeting. Not only is it entirely unnecessary to tell your dog to stop smelling other dogs' bottoms, but it’s also detrimental to their wellbeing and potentially to their behaviour.

Jean Donaldson in her excellent book The Culture Clash sets up a scenario to make us imagine how life might be like for a pet dog in a human world: imagine humans were living with a superior species, whose language they did not understand and who set rules for human behaviour, often running counter to what humans felt was natural. One such rule forbids humans to smile at strangers, or shake hands with their friends. In fact, they are told off and even punished if they do so.

Although Donaldson over-eggs the pudding when it comes to the incomprehension between humans and dogs, I think she makes a valid an important point with this analogy about greetings. Both humans and dogs are highly social species, and greetings are central to social behaviour. Restricting the ability to greet both your own and other species (the problem of how to greet a dog correctly - as a human - is going to have to be the subject of a whole different post), is likely to make any human or dog miserable.

Even more crucially, it is also likely to restrict and even deteriorate an individual’s ability to interact socially. I am convinced that the apparently silly, but surprisingly widespread, interdiction against sniffing bottoms and bits is part of the problem with anti-social dogs. Of course, a lot of other factors are also responsible, and there is to a certain extent an evil cycle at work, where people are wary of letting their dogs meet other dogs, let alone come close enough to sniff each other, due to the prevalence of badly socialized dogs. However, I feel that keeping dogs apart from one another, and preventing them from interacting in a natural way, is not going to improve things, quite the contrary.

Is it a wonder that dogs struggle with getting on if we are not allowing them to greet each other politely. A human smile and handshake signals good intentions and a willingness for peaceful interaction, and so do doggy greeting rituals, and sniffing and allowing oneself to be sniffed is a big part of those rituals. If smiles and handshakes were discouraged, even forbidden, how would you know who was friend or foe? Would you not be more likely to take a defensive, even an aggressive stance to all strangers?

While I would always advise caution, although I wish I did not have to, when meeting and approaching strange dogs with your own, I would call for people not only to allow their canine companions to interact more, but also encourage them to engage in the full glory of canine greeting rituals, bits and all. 


Angela J. said...

I agree! I'm always happy to see a "proper" canine greeting.

houndstooth said...

I agree with you on this one. I tend to let our girls use what we call "the international greeting" when they meet other dogs, unless they start to overdo it, or I see the other dog is uncomfortable. There are a few circumstances where I don't allow it, like on nursing home visits, because they're supposed to be working and not socializing, and in our obedience classes, it's not allowed, so we play by the rules there. If we just happen to be out and about, though, it's all good!

Finn said...

Hi EA! Came to you through PBU. I really like this topic here, and I can appreciate the scary stairs view as well. Looking forward to your posts!