A trainer asked me recently about a dog’s puzzling behavior. The five-month-old herding breed would growl when being picked up or handled. That wasn’t the puzzling part—we’ve all seen that! The thing that confused her was that after she’d held the dog, with him growling, growling more intensely, and finally stopping, she’d released him…and he laid down right next to her.
I can see how that might seem confusing. After all, the dog wanted nothing more than to get away when he was in your arms, so why didn’t he go running once he regained his freedom? The answer might not have been obvious, but it is simple: the dog liked you—he just didn’t like the things you were doing to him.
I remember many years ago hearing someone (I believe it was Sue Sternberg) say that the two situations in which a dog normally becomes aggressive are when you try to make him do something he doesn’t want to do, and when you try to stop him from doing something he does want to do. I have always found that to be true. Think about it: your dog doesn’t want to get into the car, so you try to load him in, and he growls. Or, your dog really wants to get to a piece of food lying on the floor. You stop him, and he turns and snaps at you.
During the years that I worked with wolves and wolfdogs at a sanctuary, I handled many of the residents. I was never bitten while trying to force one of them to do something they didn’t want to do, mainly because I never tried. Sure, we had to get wolves into crates to go to the vet’s office or to move to another enclosure, but it was done carefully and with planning, and happily, without bodily harm to anyone. I spent a lot of time sitting in the dirt, waiting for the fearful ones to feel comfortable enough to approach, and eventually, petting and stroking them calmly to the extent that they would accept it. Forcing them to be handled would have been counterintuitive and counterproductive.
It’s a different situation with dogs, since some handling will surely be necessary throughout their lives. There will be inevitably be times we have to do things they might not like. Gradual desensitization beforehand can help to prevent the type of scenario described with the herding pup. But there’s something more: just as we differentiate between not liking a person and not liking something they’ve done, dogs seem to do the same. Sure, an unfamiliar dog might not ever trust you if your introduction is at a grooming salon where he’s terrified as you clip his nails. In the trainer’s case, she’d probably established enough of a relationship with the dog before picking him up that he rebounded nicely. With our own dogs, these wonderful, loving creatures seem to make the same kind of differentiation we do; they might not love everything we do, but they love us and continue to want to be our loyal companions. And for that, we should be profoundly grateful.