Strangers and Dogs

A few weeks ago, I invited a friend who had recently been laid off over for lunch. We hadn’t seen each other since she’d left work, and I wanted to catch up with her. This friend, S, hadn’t had it easy lately, and had been struggling to find her footing.

On the day that S came over, B and Scout were in the backyard. I was busy in the kitchen, cooking up what I thought would be a quick pasta lunch for us. But I was running late, and this had me stressed.

When S arrived, I let her in and greeted her, and then B and Scout entered. Scout surprised us. She did not like S being in the house at all. She stood very close to B and I, with the hair on her back up, and growled at S. Of course, B and I were embarrassed and scolded her, but Scout never did calm down. The entire afternoon that S visited, Scout would not come near her, sat directly between B and I, and would let out an unhappy noise every now and again in the mist of the conversation. B and I were mystified.

There is one other time that Scout has acted this way. We had a couple over for a dinner party, and it was already dark out when they arrived. We opened the door and welcomed them in, and while we took their coats, Scout walked around us in a circle, shyly greeting the new arrivals without showing any obvious displeasure. Then, we all looked up, and realized simultaneously that Scout had circled her way right out the front door and was standing on the stoop, very clearly not sure what to do. She reacted by turning tail and running—right out into the street in front of an oncoming car. Of course I let out a scream and ran after her, B at my heels. The car, thank goodness, stopped without hitting her, and we gathered Scout up and cajoled her back inside. Needless to say, she never warmed to those house guests either.

But other people we have over, even unannounced, Scout will have no trouble with. She will be puppy-level excited that we have visitors, especially children. We’ve been thinking and talking about it for a while now, trying to figure out if the trouble is on our end or hers, if we need to do more training or what. Was there something in S and our dinner-guest couple that we didn’t see? Some hidden-to-us characteristic that we should inspect closer? I.e.: Is Scout’s dog sense picking up on something our people senses are too dull to recognize?

puppy dog

Then, tonight, as I sat in bed reading Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz, I came to a passage on dogs’ “character-reading ability.” Without retyping an entire paragraph, I’ll summarize the argument to this: What some might see as their dog’s ability to read what the owner cannot see in someone may in fact be the dog reading not the someone, but the owner himself. In other words, Scout wasn’t reading S or our dinner guests, but our reaction to said guests.

Were we out of sorts during these visits? Let me think back. During our dinner party we certainly were, especially when Scout ran out into the road. (That’ll get your heart beating pretty quickly!) But then it hit me: Both times, I was cooking. I was stressed. I was attempting to get a nice meal on the table for people I care about. For the dinner party, it was an involved, multicourse meal, and though it was a simple meal for S, I was running late. “Dogs are, as we have seen, sensitive to the olfactory changes that come with stress,” Ms. Horowitz writes.

I’m not saying that I alone am responsible for Scout’s behavior at these two events, but it is interesting to stop and think about how we, the humans, have influenced these situations. The entire time we’ve been trying to evaluate the scenarios, we’ve been focused on Scout, instead of ourselves.

One always hears that dogs are great for reminding us to live in the moment, or as Cesar Milan says, to stay present and focused and calm. Perhaps this is what Scout was reacting to all along.

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One response to “Strangers and Dogs

  1. ForPetsSake May 1, 2012 at 5:47 am

    Great post! Our Nyxie is reactive to people and dogs and I know my stress level directly affects her behavior. There are those people that visit that I am totally comfortable around and she does FAR better than those that visit for whom my stress level is higher. I read somewhere that dogs can hear a heartbeat from 5 ft away…pretty amazing creatures!

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