Dogs Deserve the Power of “No”

This post probably isn’t going where you think it is. I’m not talking about telling Fido “NO!” when he steals food off the counter or bites your cousin Margaret’s ankle (even though we all know she deserved it, that awful woman).

I’m talking about allowing our dogs to tell others “no.”

Some people seem to believe Spot should be a model family member who can do no wrong and tolerate all manner of nonsense. The loyal family rug that you feed in exchange for unconditional love (…wait). Spot is a bad dog if he ever growls or snaps or shows any sort of displeasure with another being/activity.

For example, I see this occasionally at the dog park. Dog #1 will be, for whatever reason, disinterested in playing with Dog #2. Dog #2 doesn’t get the hint and persists in trying to get Dog #1 to play. Dog #1 has had enough and finally tells Dog #2 off with a ferocious snarl. Dog #1’s owner chides them, saying, “They just want to play, why are you being so mean?!”

Well why are you such a fucking idiot, Margaret?!

Ahem, sorry…

Dog #1 is not obligated to play with Dog #2. Maybe Dog #1 is tired, in pain, or simply doesn’t like Dog #2’s play style. Maybe Dog #2 made fun of Dog #1’s haircut (something I’ve heard an actual “pet psychic” say, no lie). Until the day dogs evolve the ability to say, in clear English, “I’m sorry, old chap, I’m afraid I’d rather sit this one out – perhaps another time, old bean,” they have only a few ways of communicating with each other – and a snarl is a perfectly reasonable form of communication when all other more polite forms have failed. (Also, don’t ask me why dogs evolve to be British caricatures in the future.)

My dog is allowed to tell other dogs to buzz off when he has a valuable chew like a bully stick. He usually does this with a hard stare or small growl. The other dogs usually respect his request and all is well – it was merely communication. My dog learns this form of communication is effective and does not feel the need to escalate to something more aggressive.

My dog is also allowed to tell me no. Yes, even me! If I’m trimming his nails and he pulls his paw away, I let him. I encourage him with treats and praise and try holding his paw differently (this usually works for him, but if not I need to go back a step and work on counter-conditioning). He needs to know I will listen and respect when he is uncomfortable. No one likes the parent who forces them to do things and refuses to listen (ugh, parents – they just don’t understand). This teaches him I can be trusted and he is safe with me, which improves our bond and boosts his confidence.

Lastly: children. For the love of Morgan Freeman, stop forcing your dogs to tolerate children! We all love to believe our dog is that perfect family pet who adores and protects our little ones, letting them do anything they please to them. But at the end of the day, they’re just dogs, and dogs get fed up with being disrespected. Tiny humans are obnoxious, shrill, grabby things who haven’t yet learned boundaries. My dog adores children and I’m sure he would tolerate an awful lot from them, but even he would need a break. If he chose to disengage from a toddler and leave the room I would let him. If he even growled at a persistent child, I would reassure him it’s okay and remove the child while encouraging him to go take a break somewhere. He said no, so I am respecting this by protecting him and ending the interaction.

When we forget that, for a dog, growling or snapping is just a form of communication, because they have no other way to tell us they’re uncomfortable, it does them and our relationship a huge disservice. Imagine living with a family whose culture and language was entirely different from yours and they made no attempt to understand you (or misinterpreted you big time). It’s gotta be pretty weird and confusing to be a dog. We need to meet them halfway by understanding, listening, and allowing them a little autonomy.

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