Karen B. London
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Dogs as Judges of Character
Do you value your dog’s insights?
This dog is tense about the man approaching

Years ago, my dog unexpectedly stiffened when I stopped on the street to talk to my neighbor for the first time. Though this man approached my dog gently and appropriately, my dog backed way and refused to interact at all. It was embarrassing because the man seemed friendly enough, and my dog was usually comfortable meeting people in that context. I had just moved to a small town and was eager to meet other people. My dog’s behavior was off-putting and felt like a bit of a setback socially. My new neighbor was nice enough about it, but he did seem a little offended.

Later, when I mentioned this to the family who owned the house I was renting, they were horrified, but not with my dog. They were appalled that I had spoken to the man my dog had rejected, telling me that he everyone in town knows he is mean. They warned me to be careful, telling me about his history of violence, specifically towards his ex-wife and children, and also towards other people in town. They advised me to have no contact with him at all. I later learned, as one does in a small town, more about the injuries he had caused classmates years ago in school, about the restraining order his family had against him, and various other unsavory details about him.

“If your dog doesn't like someone you probably shouldn't either” is a popular expression, reflecting the general view that our dogs are good judges of character. My dog seems to have had the proper reaction to my neighbor immediately, though I did not. Has your dog ever reacted people who didn’t alarm you, though perhaps they should have?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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Submitted by Laura | October 10 2012 |

This was a interesting article I will pass along to my husband.
We had a foster dog at an adoption day last fall. "Lady" is a yellow lab mix and loved everyone who would stop and see her(skin color, age didn't matter)everyone was a potential friend. Except for this one guy who walked past her to look at another dog. Lady went nuts barking and growling a bit at this african american man.

The rescue lady saw her extreme reaction and decided not to let this man adopt the small puppy he wanted. When we asked her, she said something didn't feel right about him and with Lady's reaction too she trusted her gut. Her comment was "I've been doing this a long time, and if a dog is showing an odd reaction to someone, it's usually for a reason and they are trying to tell me something".

The end of the story is Lady is now our foster failure and stayed with our other three. She is a great dog and well on her way to being a canine good citizen graduate :)

Submitted by Jenn | October 17 2012 |

Laura, I'm so happy to hear about your "foster failure." I have two dogs of my own and have thought about fostering another, since city ordinances allow for up to three dogs in our home, but I just know I would never get past fostering my first. Once you bond with a dog, it's too hard to let them go. Especially one as good as Lady.

Submitted by Crystal | October 10 2012 |

We had a golden retriever/chow mix who was very friendly with most of the people my two sons brought home. When he would react to specific people in an unfriendly manner, those kids were bad news. The same thing with workmen that would be in our house when I was alone. He was a great judge of character.

Submitted by Liz | October 10 2012 |

I believe this 100%. My dog has a good gut-feel about people. Sometimes it's just that they're nervous about the dog, sometimes they have some other emotional turmoil going on. But if I don't know them, and my dog doesn't like them, I'm immediately on guard.

Submitted by citydog | October 10 2012 |

While I do think that many dogs are quite adept at spotting human insincerity/deception and will make note of unusual reactions (positive or negative) my dogs have to individuals, I really hate articles like this because they are often interpreted in such a way that it puts *FAR* too much responsibility on dogs to be mind readers. People unfairly expect dogs to know the difference between, say, a meter reader and a burglar, and then are surprised when the dogs bite (and of course, the dogs inevitably pay the price for that).

Submitted by Anonymous | October 10 2012 |

I have a little terrier x who is an EXCELLENT judge of character. 1. He has this uncanny ability to detect ANYONE in the vicinity who is afraid of dogs. He is a VERY friendly little pup but on 2 separate occasions as I was walking towards someone (friendly people) he had not had contact with yet - he started backing up and just barking - and on both occasions - these people said AFTER he started backing up and barking ..."oh..i'm very afraid of dogs". Also - in general - we can walk by people and not a peep out of him...but there is this ONE neighbor i have that...to me...seems harmless enough...but...my little dog wants to eat him up when he goes by ...he acts like the tasmanian devil. I had another dog that has since passed away that reacted the exact same way to this neighbor....not sure why....but...i try to steer clear of him. I think dogs are able to read very subtle physical behaviors/mannerisms and/or smell certain scents etc that humans can't...and that is what lets them know "good-bad" people - or "sick - healthy" or even "happy-sad" people -

Submitted by Dave Trowbridge | October 10 2012 |

I think that in many, if not most, cases, what your dog is reacting to is not its judgment of the person, but your subconscious judgment that social conditioning or other factors prevent you from recognizing or acknowledging.

Submitted by Aaron | October 10 2012 |

My dog, Ember ( a heeler/shepherd mix) is a celebrity in my neighborhood. She's pleasant with everyone she meets, listens when I tell her to stop chasing cats or squirrels and I occasionally walk her off- lead because shes so good at being....well, good. She's also well known for not barking...at anything. So much so that I've told my neighbors that if she is barking continuously to just call the police before checking it out. She's a great ambassador for canines everywhere.

About a year and a half ago. I was out on my back patio with a view of the courtyard. Ember is used to seeing dogs, cats, squirrels, kids and strangers regularly here. Shes content to observe closely but she never gets overly excited about anything except for the few nemesis kitty's running around.

A man and woman with a small child between them appear on the walkway about 150 feet away. Ember lost it. In the 5 years Ive had her, Ive never heard her bark at anyone before but there it was. Teeth bared and barkin her furry head off. I took her inside immediately and wondered if it could be the kid but that makes no sense. She loves kids.

From 150 ft out she sensed something wrong in the most innocent, unassuming scene you can imagine. I don't know what it was, but I trust her instincts nonetheless. Something was up with those people or one of them. I wish I could have a follow up story like the article, but I don't. Nothing like it has happened since.

I do put faith in my dogs instincts but that’s my dog. Context is everything. The dogs normal responses, their past exposure to new environments and people all come into play. I do believe they have a sixth sense about these things but like any unknown, be skeptical.

Submitted by Anonymous | October 10 2012 |

I have a feeling for every time a dog reacts to someone due to a "correct judge of character" there will be twenty or so more times where a dog reacts due to poor socialization, gaps in socialization, poor handling skills or other common factors. While I wouldn't mind Karen London or other qualified people making this kind of commentary about their dogs, the public at large is not particularly qualified to make that judgement, IMO.

Submitted by Jan | October 11 2012 |

My dog is a certified therapy dog and loves everyone -- with the exception of a guy he encountered six years ago. He started growling and going nuts at this man(who responded by getting behind me and making a threatening move towards the dog). We later determined the guy was drunk, on drugs, or mentally ill (perhaps a combination of all three). I truly believe in trusting your dog's instincts and getting out of a situation where your dog is showing unusual behavior towards a person.

Submitted by chickwdog | October 15 2012 |

My new dog is leary around one of my husbands friends. He loves everyone except this one guy. I told my husband that I trust the dogs instincts towards this guy. There is "something" about him that just doesn't sit right with me either. I believe our dogs are our guardians and trust their judgement wholeheartedly.

Submitted by Szabo | October 16 2012 |

My rescued Vizsla bit the principal on graduation day.

I hadn't had him, the dog, long. He was off-leash (okay in that park,) and, the high school graduation was slated to occur on adjacent land. The dog was curious and approached a man who turned around and kicked at him (he missed) angrily telling the dog to go away. My new buddy reached up and snapped his jaws on the principal's cheek. Later I told the angry man that I'd probably bite too if he kicked me.

Submitted by Jenny H | July 18 2014 |

I dunno,

My German Shepherds seem to instinctively dislike people who are afraid of them. But this doesn't at all seem to correlate with people whom I have found to be untrustworthy.

The Kelies of he other hand love Anyone, just so long s they throw the ball, the stick, the mouldy lemon that they've dropped at the person's foot. My Mad Kelpie even loved the bloke who threw stones at him, and kept retrieving the stones and giving them back to the bloke to throw again.

But I didn't love him and told him off -- the Electricity People send a new meter-reader after that! :-)

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