By Dr. Becker
If you've ever visited Europe, you might have noticed that European pets, generally speaking, are quite well-behaved — maybe more so than dogs born and raised in the U.S.
One couple who moved from Dallas to London found that perhaps their dogs weren't quite "ready for prime time" in comparison with the dogs that had been raised in their new country. They wondered if it was just their imagination. Determined to get to the bottom of their growing suspicion that their pups might need a little more tweaking in the behavioral department, they asked a friend, who happened to be a professional dog trainer, to give them some pointers.
Throughout Belgium, France and other places throughout the United Kingdom, Kama Brown, a certified professional dog trainer-knowledge assessed (CPDT-KA), kept her eye peeled for any wisdom she could glean regarding European dogs, as well as their owners.1
Is It Me or Is It My Dog?
One of the first things Brown noticed was the freedom most dogs enjoyed, but well-deserved. She was intrigued to see that most dogs were off leash, even when they visited museums, toy stores and markets and rode on trains, trolleys and elevators. Only when waterfowl were present were European dogs leashed.
She also noticed that when children wanted to approach dogs on the street, they were told to "avoid distracting them," and that admonition was consistent everywhere. Dogs weren't asked to wait while their owners went inside stores or eateries, or to lie under tables on the train or tram. The dogs did so without being told. Still, Brown observed:
"Young dogs in Europe did the same things as young dogs in America. A -month-old black Labrador jumped onto a counter to sniff the cheese selection at the market. A small mixed breed stopped to sniff each interesting spot.
When a young Bulldog resisted going down the stairs to the Underground, the owner coaxed him down each new step. A man with a very young puppy walked quickly to keep the puppy from picking up objects he found along the way. Nothing I saw made me think that European dogs were born well behaved."2
Another of her observations was that dogs were basically ignored. No one fawned over them, asked owners if they could give their pets food morsels or even pet them. The non-interaction extended to other dogs; owners avoided letting their dogs sniff, stand near or play with other dogs.
How Dogs in Europe Are Trained to Behave
The more Brown found herself in areas where dogs were plentiful, the more she realized what she was seeing was very close to the way service dogs are trained and treated in the U.S. Owners do their best to maintain a calm, comfortable environment, which encourages them to be calm and quiet, as well.
When service dogs in the U.S. walk through crowds or encounter people, their owners and trainers are always pleased when no one approaches them to pet them, talk to them or get in their dogs' space. Strangers, when wise, don't encourage interaction at all with dogs they're not familiar with, and that's how owners of service dogs typically like it.
The simple reason for this is that such interaction does distract dogs. It puts them in conflict, even in the presence of their owners, because the signals aren't consistent. Brown explains:
"We treat service dogs this way because we understand that interacting with them makes training harder for their handler. When strangers frequently offer treats and attention, or allow their dogs to rush into another dog's space, it produces specific emotional responses, which will arise each time a new person or a strange dog approaches. Sometimes, this emotion is pleasure, but more often, anxiety, over-exuberance or defensive behavior is manifested."3
Strangers' Interaction With Dogs Distracts and Confuses Them
One of the most interesting phenomena on this side of the pond is how little most people, including dog owners, understand that lavishing praise and conversation on any and all dogs is setting those dogs and owners up for failure, Brown asserts. Further, the fact that dogs aren't restricted from many areas helps them become more acclimated to different environments, which helps them remain calm rather than unsure of what's happening and how to respond. Brown says:
"If being taken to new places were a regular occurrence, it would not excite a dog into lunging through doorways. If barking and pulling were consistently ignored in young dogs, those behaviors could never become a game or a way to get attention. Unlike the restrictions put on U.S. dog owners, Europeans are able to consistently expose their dogs to new sounds, sights and smells, which mentally enriches the dogs without overstimulating them."4
Determining not to acknowledge a dog you (or your children) are not familiar with may be one of the best things you can do for them. Owners don't have to calm or reassure dogs that become overexcited when strangers don't approach or engage them. Brown says that lack of distraction allows dogs to relax and focus on their owners.
The upshot for Brown's newly planted London dwellers was that they could relax, too. Just living in a European city would be three-quarters of the way toward success because their dogs would be ignored! The key to socialization was their dogs' simple presence — not constant attention. Other than bonding with their pup or pups and teaching basic manners, nothing else would be needed. Except perhaps a little "schooling" for over-attentive dog lovers.