Body Slams and Touch-Free Cuddling

Look, but don’t touch!

Not all dogs like to be petted. Certainly not all dogs like to be petted the same way.

The thinking dog owner might ask, “Huh? Isn’t petting a big part of why we have dogs around in the first place? Isn’t being petted pretty much an integral part of their job description as pets?” Maybe, but so what? I think that all of us, human and canine, get to decide how, when, and by whom we are touched.

With that in mind, and being admittedly slower than our dogs on the uptake, I recently made a realization about an ongoing battle I have with our German shepherd, Wylie. It’s likely, though, that only I see it as a battle; he might see it as a series of very small victories. Here’s the story.

Wylie can be pushy. He wants attention. Lots of it. He likes roughhousing and hard body contact. He body slams other dogs when he’s playing, he crashes into people and dogs, he steps on our feet and tails (well, the tails of those who have tails). He also, whenever I am petting golden retriever Jana, comes over and pushes his nose, head, or entire body between my hand and Jana. I push him away. He comes back. I put up an arm to block him. He crashes into it.

I could, of course correct him by telling him to sit or lie down. But what often happens is that, when he butts in, I get annoyed. And, I want to spend some time with Jana. So, instead of asking him to sit and then petting him in turn, I block him and usually order him to “go settle — somewhere else.”

But it doesn’t work. He keeps coming back.

I was musing about this ongoing conflict one evening recently and suddenly realized that Wylie is, in fact, getting exactly the kind of “petting” that he likes. Maybe not much of it — a few seconds at most — but he is getting what he wants. When I do focus on him and pet him, I don’t massage him and use the gentle strokes Jana likes; I thump his side, and we roughhouse a bit. He likes that.

While I am sure he would prefer that I stop petting Jana and focus my full attention — and both hands — on him when he interrupts my Jana time, he might believe that some attention is better than no attention. So my shoving him back isn’t a correction but more of a reward. And Wylie might not see the encounters as an ongoing battle but more as a challenge to see how much of my attention he can claim.

This realization ties nicely in with my strong belief that we (humans who live with dogs) should try to see things from the dog’s point of view sometimes and figure out what matters to the dog — more specifically, to each individual dog. When we understand a dog’s motivation, a lot more of that dog’s behavior makes sense.

Which brings me to Jana and touch-free cuddling.

It sounds like an oxymoron, but touch-free cuddling is actually Jana’s favorite way to spend time with her people. She’ll join one of us on the bed or the sofa, curling up comfortably — close but  not touching. If we overstep our bounds and reach out to stroke her, we’ll often be “rewarded” with a dirty look and a disappearing dog. Occasionally, she will tolerate a few minutes of petting before inching away, out of reach.

It’s not that Jana  doesn’t want company; she does. She’s quite content to hang out near us and will often follow me from room to room, settling nearby. And sometimes, on her terms, she wants to be petted, stroked, massaged, or belly-rubbed. She’ll even ask for it on (rare) occasion. When she’s enjoying it, she thumps her tail happily and offers lots of body language cues that tell me to continue, primary among them the fact that she has not walked away! But it is always, very much, on her terms.

Jana has always been more aloof than most golden retrievers, and I recognize and appreciate that about her. I am not one of those people who enjoys an attention-seeking dog (or person); Jana and I understand and complement each other well. But she is often misunderstood by people who assume that all dogs (or at least all goldens) live for the touch of human hands and who feel rejected by Jana’s refusal to be petted.

Not only do our dogs deserve to be petted (or not petted) in the ways that feels good to them, each needs to be understood and appreciated for who he or she is. In doing so, we humans have a better chance of understanding our dogs’ behavior — and perhaps avoiding or resolving conflicts.

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