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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?

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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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