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Strangers elicit conflicting emotions
I was recently called in to consult on a situation with a three year old neutered male black lab mix owned by a Pennsylvania woman and her 15 year old daughter. When I arrived at the house, the mother and her dog, Rocky, were outside playing ball. When I pulled up, Rocky began barking. The hair on his back was up and he kept a good 10-15 feet away from me barking and moving, moving and barking. All the time his tail was wagging. Was this dog friendly? Was he scared? Or was he aggressive? Actually, he was all of the above. It is quite common for dogs and people, and most other animals, for that matter, to experience competing motivations in certain situations. That is, at the same time an animal may be excited about the prospect of greeting a visitor as manifested by the wagging tail, he can also be frightened. This is apparent in the hair raised on his back and the distance he kept, moving away as I approached. And simultaneously he was being protective of his home, his family and himself. This was clear in the threatening tone of his bark and low growl. So what does one do in a situation like this? The only right answer is that it varies from situation to situation. In this particular case, it was clear to me that first and foremost, Rocky was fearful. In order to prevent against the threats of his barks intensifying, I avoided making any direct approach or sudden moves towards him. After I entered the house and sat down, my size had suddenly decreased by half, and as I was no longer towering over him, Rocky's fear diminished somewhat. It had certainly diminished enough to let his desire to interact move into the lead. How did I know this? First, his tail was going stronger than ever, but more significantly, he grabbed his ball and was prancing back and forth. He was still too scared to make contact, keeping about 5 feet away. His ceaseless pacing with the ball belied his breed. The energy that an animal brings to a situation can easily go off in any direction fueling whatever motivations lay within, so it is important not to give him any reason to devote that energy to fear or attack. It took all of a minute for him to drop the ball, and the character of his barking quickly changed from one of threat and warning to one of attention seeking. Still, he kept his distance. But when he dropped the ball, it was a certain invitation to play, and that was what I did. Before long his fear had dropped enough to let his curiosity take over and he was soon sniffing me with a good bit of residual caution. I remained careful not to make any sudden moves that would send him off in a sharp retreat. And when he let me pet him, I knew, as did Rocky, that the hardest part was behind us. Meeting strangers and making friends, for pets and people alike, can be a tense and difficult process. The uncertainties of novel situations and unknown individuals can put us on our guard. We can feel vulnerable to the potential slings and arrows that may await us (which mostly lurk in our minds from past traumas and formative experiences), and so can our animals. So consider a perspective that is seldom appreciated. To us people, dogs and cats are generally smaller, softer, more friendly, loving and exciting than are people. Most people think nothing about directly approaching and reaching to pet animals whom they have never met before. From the animal's perspective, it's often a whole different picture. You are likely 3 to 20 times larger than they are, and are often approaching them as you enter their territory. They may be a mixed bag of emotions, nervous and uncertain. Be understanding. See to it that they are relaxed and comfortable with you before you take liberties and tread upon ground onto which you have not been invited. Interacting with strangers in the animal world involves ritualized "dances" where there is a back and forth of moves, accommodating the mutual comfort of both individuals involved. See these creatures as more than toys or sources of your own pleasure. See them as the feeling and emotion filled creatures that they are, and the experiences you share with them will be far more rewarding for you and them both.