We’re well underway with another dog-training class at Sprinker Center. This is a class for younger dogs who need basic skills like “sit”, walking on lead and coming when called. I really enjoy teaching this class. It’s fun to watch dogs and their guardians or trainers making progress.
Some of the dogs in this class already have these basic skills. They just lack the socialization that makes their responses dependable when there are distractions, like other dogs, nearby. We start each session with a short “meet & greet” so the dogs can sniff each other and get to know their classmates.
It’s interesting to note that dog-owners are often a bit nervous about these meetings. Some of them hold the leads very tightly and seem to be worried that the dogs will attack each other. Of course it’s a good thing that people are aware of the dog’s behavior as they meet. More often than not things go just fine and the dogs work things out in short order.
The hesitation that we feel when another dog approaches can be well founded, but more often it’s just humans projecting our own sensibilities into our dogs. Humans have what we call “personal space”. The human concept of personal space extends outward from our bodies to about 18 to 36 inches and varies with different cultures. When another human invades our personal space we become agitated and defensive. This is not necessarily the case with dogs.
Dogs don’t have the same concept of personal space that we have. Of course dogs can be trained to defend territories and/or resources, but a dog on neutral ground will generally not feel compelled to defend his “personal space”. Perhaps this is can be attributed to the way a dog experiences his world which is largely olfactory. The dog’s nose is so much more sensitive than ours that it’s difficult to imagine what their world “looks” like. Researchers say that the dog’s brain devotes a larger portion to the sense of smell than human brains devote to vision.
When you think about the way that humans experience the world, it is almost inseparable with our vision. Our sense of sight shapes us as organisms and it shapes the manner in which we interact with the world and with each other. Light travels into our eyes and the optic nerve sends the signals to the brain where they are processed.
The olfactory sense is different in that smells, which are particles of matter, are inhaled into the body. The dogs’ ability to process these signals is amazing, but what is perhaps even more significant is that the dog is actually breathing his world in. Rather than experiencing the world through light rays that reflect off objects and enter the eyes, the dog experiences the world by breathing it in and out.
With this in mind, it’s easier to understand why our concept of personal space doesn’t really apply to dogs. They experience so much of the world by breathing it right into their bodies that it just makes sense to them to get up close and personal to anything they encounter and sniff it right in. Many times I’ve seen dog owners embarrassed and horrified when their dog sniffs another dog’s butt or genitals. What we might call “private areas” simply don’t exist for dogs. After all, the odors from these so called “private areas” are readily detectable by the canine from great distances. A good, close-range sniff is probably just a way to confirm the identity of a person or another dog.
At my training class I tell people to encourage their dogs to sniff and get acquainted with the other dogs. When two dogs are sniffing each other’s rear ends there is rarely any aggression involved. They’re just getting to know each other. The only time we really need to be cautious is when they show signs of aggression like bared teeth, raised hackles, growling, etc. These aggression signals nearly always come when the dogs are face to face.
If you have a “Teenage Dog In Trouble” or if you just think your dog could benefit from some additional socialization in a safe and controlled environment you should know that these classes will continue through winter and spring. The dates are as follows:
Jan. 17 through Feb. 21
Feb. 28 through April 3
April 24 through May 29
Each class is 6 weeks long and we meet on Tuesdays from 6:30 to 7:30 PM at Sprinker Recreation Center. Registration is through Pierce County Parks and Recreation. You can register online at