Usual disclaimers apply here – I’m not going to delve deeply into canine behavioural psychology because, at this point, it is beyond my ken. There are some really good questions around territoriality and protectiveness, and I’m not much for answering those decisively, although I would love to know more.
This is about Amos, and some general perceptions of dog behaviour, and a bit of a brag, because I’m biased, and Amos is my bud.
Our first anecdote begins one bright Saturday morning when my father drove out to our place to help us with some yard work (this was before we adopted Abby). This is an ongoing project, ever since a fifty-metre-plus mountain ash with delusions of glory launched itself into our yard over a year ago and smacked down perfectly parallel to the fence line. Dad came around with his trailer and a tale of woe.
This is not unusual, and it’s a family trait. We love us some tales of woe.
Since the tree had crushed our original fence, gate and retaining wall, we’ve had some “temporary” pool-safety fencing up to prevent Amos from wandering the countryside. So Dad and I stood next to this fence as he shared his tale of woe. On the other side of the fence, Amos stood, wagging his tail and gazing happily up at us (Amos adores my father).
Now, this was a tale of betrayal and crappy friendship and a few thousand dollars lost between ex-friends, and my father gets very animated when telling a story.
This, too, is a family trait. Why simply tell a story with one’s lips when one can throw in waving hands and puffed out chests and facial grimaces? This is not merely a story, people. This is theatre, and that is our noble way.
He was very angry about what had happened, and, being Dad, he kind of got in my face, while shouting about it.
Let’s be clear – my dad wasn’t threatening me at all, and I was well aware of that, but I am not good around overt displays of anger or temper. I tend to freeze up a little, and twitch back.
Dad stopped mid-rant, mouth open. I frowned. As one we turned our heads towards Amos. He was standing in a very alert position, staring at my father. Now, Amos will bark to invite play, so I checked his body language – nope, this wasn’t a play bark. It wasn’t a full-on aggressive bark, either. “What?” I asked the dog (who, naturally, did not reply). “Nothing to worry about here. Everything’s okay.” I stroked him on the head and under the jaw and he relaxed, his tail wagging happily again.
I turned back to Dad. “Resume story,” I said, knowing the value of delivering a good rant.
Dad continued in his rant, and again, he got in my face.
And again, we turned to look at Amos.
The light dawned. “Ah. Dad, he thinks you’re yelling at me.”
“Oh!” Dad relaxed at once, and came over to give Amos some petting and love, and he backed off the story a bit, and all was well.
Now, I don’t know if Amos was responding to Dad’s aggressive body language (and it was very intimidating body language, particularly if you don’t know my dad), or my instinctive twitchiness in the face of anger, or possibly the combination of the two, but I’ll be honest: I think his reaction was excellent, and I’ll tell you why.
Dogs are attuned to human body language. It’s the only way they know to communicate with us. Every piece of information is crucial. I wouldn’t be entirely happy if my dog was so clueless that they couldn’t pick up on this sort of thing – it would probably be harder to communicate with them. I wouldn’t necessarily want a dog to become desensitised to it either, because that would indicate that displays of anger or temper are commonplace, and that’s not an ideal situation for anyone.
On the other hand, a dog that is overly protective – one that goes from zero to a hundred without warning – is really not desirable either. If a dog doesn’t let anyone they haven’t met get near you, that’s a problem, not just from a practical standpoint (having to put the dog away every time you have guests is frustrating. We sometimes have to do that, but admittedly that’s because of excessive social enthusiasm, not territoriality), but because it suggests that your dog thinks you can’t take care of yourself.
That may seem like excessive interpretation (and anthropomorphism), but bear with me: essentially, you want your dog to trust you to take care of them, not the other way around. In other words, it’s nice that Amos has my back, but clearly he follows my judgment when I declare things to be “safe” or otherwise. This means that if I don’t overreact to storms and earthquakes, he probably won’t either (note: lots of dogs are scared of storms and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your reaction – but your reaction can make it worse). If I react with warm enthusiasm to a visitor, that tells Amos that the visitor is safe.
If he were getting protective, even from people that I obviously like, that would indicate that he wasn’t trusting my judgment, and I need my dog to trust me.
I have another example. Last year, I had surgery. It was relatively minor surgery, but it did involve an open wound that took a while to heal, and Amos could smell that I wasn’t at my best. He didn’t get over-protective, but he did become a little bit more of a velcro-dog than he would normally be.
One day, a few days after I got out of the hospital, I stepped out on the back deck to find that Lenny, the kelpie from next door, had come to visit. Lenny is a sweetheart and a charmer, with an ant-eater style tongue that attacks you like a friendly, sloppy ninja, so I was delighted to see him. He galloped over to me for a pat.
Amos body-blocked him. He didn’t growl. He didn’t snap. He just ensured that Lenny could not get close to me, and after that, he actually gently herded Lenny over to the other end of the deck, and then came back to me, looking very pleased with himself.
It’s true that when Amos and Lenny (or Amos and Abby, or any combination of the three) are in the presence of any of their favourite humans, they get possessive and a bit jealous. No! I want all the pats! You can’t have any! And they will body block, and wriggle, and bounce, but there’s a very obvious no-hard-feelings about all the body language involved. I’ve never seen them herd each other before.
“Aw,” I said to Amos, “That’s sweet. But I want to pat Lenny.” So I put Amos in a drop, and walked over to Lenny, who was looking quite forlorn-
-and then I went back to Amos, and put him back in his drop-
Okay. It took a few tries to get past Amos’s instinctive conviction that Lenny shouldn’t be too close when I was vulnerable, but we got there. Amos held his drop, with a desperate look in his eyes, and I petted Lenny and told him he was very cute, and then I released Amos and petted them both, and the moment seemed to pass.
While I felt quite loved, herding away a smaller dog that we know well bordered a little bit on over-protective for me. He did it gently, with no overt displays of aggression, but it was an unnecessary level of caution. So, I decided that I had to demonstrate to Amos that I get to make all the decisions about patting other dogs, even when I’m sick and have an open surgical wound, and we did this in a controlled setting.
My favourite story, though, is a bit more ridiculous. It takes place the day after we brought little Amos-puppy home. He was nine weeks old and a bit under five kilos.
For nearly the first 24 hours that we had Amos, he interacted almost exclusively with me. Husband was working from home that day and things had apparently gone a bit pear-shaped, so he was very busy. I’d picked up Amos from the breeder and brought him home, talking to him the whole time and petting him at red lights. I’d put his box next to my side of the bed that first night, and slept with my arm dangling in it so he could lick me and get petted when he felt uncertain (just for the first night, I didn’t want to create a pattern). There was a very quick bonding process.
The evening of the second Amos-day, I was still very tired and not feeling at my best. Husband was stressed out about work, and we had what passes for a fight when two people are very grumpy but too tired to get excessively worked up. I was lying on the couch, and little Amos was sprawled on the carpet having a snooze.
Voices were raised. Tempers frayed.
Then, the adorable puppy growl: “rrrrrrrrrrRUFF.”
Little puppy Amos had woken up, and positioned himself closer to me, glaring at Husband.
We both melted immediately, and the fight was over. Husband held out his hand for Amos to lick, and all was forgiven. So, it was established early on that Amos is not a fan of raised voices in the home, or cross voices, and I’m not entirely sure that was a protective urge (he was just a baby, after all) so much as his own personal discomfort with the vibe of the room.
Still, I like to say, “Amos doesn’t like it when people yell at me.” And that works out well, because I don’t like it either.