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“Don’t worry! He’s friendly.”

Updated: Feb 28

These words are often heard moments before being rushed by a dog, causing most dog owners to spin around, searching for the imminent approach of a high-energy, bounding dog.



We want to discuss this phrase and break down why the statement is usually false and why it can cause stress for anyone who can read dog body language.


The statement that is, 'The dog is friendly.'

Dogs, like humans, are social animals. This means that they form societal groups and interact highly with other animals, especially those of their own species. In contrast, some animals are solitary; for example, the jaguar only associates with other jaguars during courtship and mating. Being a social animal does not mean that they interact well with every animal in their species, in the same way that humans are social animals but not every human interacts well or favorably with every other human. This is where the word 'friendly' comes in — to describe how well social animals interact with other animals and coexist.


If we first take our human definition, usually, most people would agree that the prerequisite of a person being described as friendly is dependent on them being kind, cooperative, abiding by societal rules (avoiding rude behaviours such as staring, interrupting, forcing physical contact, etc.), and making others feel comfortable.


If you and a friend were standing in a public park having a conversation, and a stranger ran straight up to you, barged between you, interrupted you, and started talking loudly, asking intrusive questions, maybe even took your phone out of your hand and started looking through it, you might label this person as rude and lacking social awareness. You would probably not call that person friendly.


Now, if we turn this same lens onto dogs, we can draw a parallel. Dogs also have societal rules that help them to coexist and communicate. These include avoiding rude behaviours (staring, forcing physical contact, bullying behaviors, direct body language, etc.) and being cooperative and altruistic. Friendly dogs will avoid causing conflict and will attempt to de-escalate any that occur; they will attempt to make others feel comfortable.


Now, imagine instead of standing with a friend, you are with your dog in a public park, hanging out together, and an unknown dog runs straight up to you, barging between you, sniffing your dog and you frantically, maybe even taking a toy you were playing with, jumping on your dog or chasing them, or squeezing between you to get a treat. Like with the human example, the behaviour of the unknown dog is generally considered rude, and they are not being kind nor considering social etiquette. The dog has not come into the situation in a calm manner, has not read the body language of the other dog, has not slowly introduced itself, thereby giving the other animals time to respond, has not followed social rules, and can therefore not be labeled as friendly. The dog simply ran into the environment without consideration of others.


Most adult dogs, like humans, do not enjoy nor tolerate this kind of rude behaviour from other dogs. They might offer a correction initially but could also snap because they feel an invasion of their space. They may also be more passive and feel very uncomfortable and insecure without showing it obviously, similar to the range of reactions humans have when in confrontational situations.


Puppies, like young children, lack social etiquette, and because they are curious and still learning, they may run up in this rude manner and interrupt. Because of this, many adult dogs do not tolerate puppies, while others have a lot of patience. Puppies can often get a pass without much confrontation, like young children do, because they are still learning social etiquette. However, when an adult dog behaves like this, it can cause a big problem, as they have essentially not learned how to be cooperative and friendly.


The best way you can socialise your dog is to help them coexist with other dogs and not to have unnecessary extreme emotions. A dog that is constantly playing and interacting with another dog in a high-energy way is not usually able to peacefully connect and coexist; these dogs are usually very stressed in social situations. Your dog should be able to play and also be calm with their friends, the same way as humans look for calm and stability in our friendships alongside kindness and fun. Overly high-energy erratic friendships are usually unstable and involve conflict in some form or another.


Thus, when someone has a dog barging towards you and they shout out, 'Don’t worry, he’s friendly,' it is not the correct definition. In fact, the dog is very rude; they may not be aggressive, however, they are not what society would deem friendly.


The disregard for the other dog and person.

The other issue with the statement is the total disregard for the other dog and their handler and their needs. Not every dog is social, not every dog tolerates other dogs. Just like with humans, there is a spectrum; some are extroverts while others are introverts. Some dogs have trauma, illnesses, and/or training goals. Some humans simply do not want to interact with other dogs but want to just enjoy their own dog’s company, and some are scared or allergic to some dogs. There is no consent asked by the handler whether it is ok or appropriate for their dog to approach; they simply disregard the other person and order them to 'not worry.' This, from a human perspective, would likely also be labeled as rude behaviour.


If the other dog is reactive or fearful, that interaction with the rude dog may set back their training months and cause a lot of stress for the handler. And it can even be dangerous if the dog is sick or the human is allergic.


The statement 'Don't worry; he's friendly' is usually shouted by a handler that is unable to recall their dog away from someone or something. This is where it becomes problematic because the statement is used as a 'get out of jail free card' for not having proper equipment on their dog, a leash, for example, and/or recall.


Assuming all dogs are tolerant of rude dogs does not hold a handler accountable and creates excuses as to why they have no control over their dog. As handlers, our social etiquette calls for us to recall our dog or leash them, and then proceed to ask the other handler if their dog is comfortable with an interaction and if you can release your dog. With dogs, it is best to proceed with caution and assess the situation before encouraging socialisation.



Initiating interactions of social animals.

Anyone who works with social animals will know that there are certain rules that need to be followed to introduce two animals to form a successful coexistence.


Take horses, for example. Horses are social animals; however, introducing two horses happens over a period of weeks, with the horses starting in adjacent but separate fields to acclimatise to each other. The process is slow and considered until the horses show they are comfortable to fully greet each other and are compatible.


Even as humans, we have social etiquette in place to ensure good greetings. We typically introduce ourselves verbally, maybe offer a handshake, and then give the other person a personal space bubble of roughly 1m. We do not greet every person on the street; that would be exhausting.


This slow process is often not given to our dogs. We often force them into greeting multiple unknown dogs constantly. Furthermore, when we extend the idea of a dog park to any other species, it sounds absurd and dangerous. Placing multiple strange cats in the same enclosed space or multiple strange horses in the same field without preparation would end in multiple fights. It’s only because of how forgiving and altruistic many dogs are that it is not highlighted as a larger problem.


Dogs are predators.

Dogs are such an integral part of our society and many of our lives that we, as a society, have forgotten that they are predators and are therefore capable of being dangerous.


Dogs have all the instincts and capabilities of a predator programmed into their DNA. Predation and aggression are present in every dog, to varying degrees depending on genetics. All dogs have both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in them. However, in pet dogs, we often do not see the Mr. Hyde side and forget it exists.


The danger is that a lot of pet owners get into a false sense of security that their dog would never show predation or aggression and are therefore always 'safe.' The reality is that every dog bites, and ignoring that can lead to serious issues when inadequate training and management are in place.


A common example is a dog chasing and killing livestock or other pet animals (cats or other dogs, for example). However, it can range further to a dog biting a human, adult, or child.



For this reason, having a dog off-leash and without recall poses a risk to society (as seen in the video filmed by a farmer above). This is why most countries have laws about having dogs off-leash to minimise danger to the public and farmers.


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