My partner likes to annoy me. He's just playing. He's having fun. It's funny. Right? Sometimes it's really not a big deal. He'll block my way as I'm moving about the kitchen. We laugh and then carry on. Sometimes it bothers me a bit more. He adds "joke items" to our grocery list. Why is milk on here 4 times? Do you really want peanut butter? (Our house is overflowing with peanut butter.) I'd rather not have to sort through what we actually need while in the midst of an already unfortunate chore. It's not a big deal to him, but it is to me.
Because we use Alexa to make the list, I hear it every time. "Alexa, add toe fungus to grocery." And we laugh, because I know he's just playing. But I also say, in as lighthearted a tone as I can manage, "Please stop." I think this is what we do to dogs. Well, not the grocery list. ("Who needs a list?! Get everything!") But hear me out. We do this. Far more often than you'd think. We do something that gets a reaction out of them that makes us laugh. We keep doing it. We play "got yer toes" with the dog who doesn't like her toes touched. She makes this face.
We play "meet the hamster" with the dog who's frightened by rodents.
We let the kids get in her face or climb on her because they are buddies.
We don't think too much of it. Their reactions are funny. It's cute. And no one's getting hurt. Until they are.
Until the dog has to growl. Or snap. Or bite. Only then do we take them seriously.
The thing is, when something bothers us humans, we have language. We can use our words to ask someone to stop. Dogs have only body language to communicate when they're upset. And just like we don't want to get into a full-blown argument, dogs don't want to have to growl and bite.
So they "say it nicely." They lean away. They widen their eyes. They pin back their ears. They furrow their brow. They tense up their face and body. Dogs have a thousand ways of telling us when they're uncomfortable. It's only when all of these signals are ignored that they feel the need to escalate. Only we didn't see those signals, so we say, "I don't get it. She just bit out of the blue." But it wasn't out of the blue. It never is. I gotta add here that avoiding a bite is not the only reason not to make dogs uncomfortable. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it is not fun to be pestered and teased for someone else's enjoyment. That's called bullying. It sounds so obvious when you say it that way, but this is what happens. We've all been on the receiving end, so why is it okay when we do it? Maybe you're thinking, "It's all in good fun. My dog loves me. She would never hurt anyone. My dog doesn't really mind." I will almost assuredly agree that your dog does love you. But just as confidently, I can say that it's not fun for your dog. That everyone has their limits. And that this body language is telling you that she really, really does mind. Just because you didn't get growled at or bitten, doesn't mean it was okay. She was tolerating it. And I don't know about you, but I don't want my dog to have to tolerate me. Tolerating isn't fun. That's not the relationship I want to have with someone I love. What I want instead is for my dog to trust me, to know that I respect their boundaries, and to know that I will advocate for and protect them. To have this type of relationship with an animal is a bazillion times more rewarding. And at least as much fun. I'd bet good money that the same is true in our human relationships. Might you be on the giving or receiving end, or both? Check in. Before someone ends up getting bitten.