Social pressure is a term used to describe the use of the natural space around you and all living things. Think of your personal bubble and how it interacts with those around you. Every individual (human and canine) has a different sized bubble and it changes depending on who is attempting to enter it.
When considering humans, it is appropriate for your family members and close friends to come inside your bubble and make contact with you. It is not appropriate for a stranger to do so – in fact, most would consider it weird or even frightening. Social pressure can be used to show respect – that is, not applying pressure by giving an unfamiliar person space when you interact with them. It can also be used to intimidate by invading an unfamiliar person’s space against their will.
Dogs use Social Pressure with each other too. Confident and/or social dogs have smaller bubbles and happily invite friends (and sometimes strangers) inside. Shy and/or wary dogs may have a very large bubble – sometimes keeping others quite a distance away. A shy dog will give off unique and sometimes subtle signals to let the others know what he is and is not comfortable with. If the other dogs have been well socialized, they will gladly respect that request. A well-adjusted dog will only use as much Social Pressure as is necessary to get the message across. However, dogs who often have their signals ignored sometimes develop preemptive defensiveness towards those who approach. Their more subtle signals have been repeatedly blown off and as a result, they have discovered that growling, lunging or even biting is the only way to get the message across.
When you meet a new dog, just as when meeting a new person – be respectful and observant of his personal bubble – watch his body language closely.
Do not assume a dog will be comfortable with you immediately approaching and touching him. Is he choosing to keep his distance and not approach you? Respect those signals and leave him be – no talk, no eye contact and no touch. If it’s a dog you will be spending a lot of time around, his bubble should decrease over time as he learns you will respect his request to give him space.
On the other hand, what do you do when you meet a dog who doesn’t respect YOUR personal bubble? We all know the dog – the one who comes bounding across the yard, leaps up on you and maybe even knocks you over backwards. It doesn’t have to be a large dog – a Chihuahua that does this is just as inappropriate as the Golden Retriever.
You can use your bubble and social pressure to give him signals right away that it is NOT ok for him to invade your bubble without your permission. How would you…or rather, should you, react if a [friendly] dog is running towards you? You should put your arms out to the side, (low at first, raising them at as needed), make yourself look bigger, stand your ground and possibly begin slowly and deliberately moving towards the dog. By making yourself big and using overt body language, you are increasing the size of your bubble, and by moving forward, you are applying social pressure. Pretend your bubble is a force field – your energy must be firm and confident to match. Tell the dog with your body language to STOP. As soon as you see the dog yielding to your social pressure, release it!
Releasing social pressure is just as important as applying it.
Social pressure can be applied in varying degrees of intensity. It depends on what message you need to convey. As a rule, use as little as is necessary to convey your message. Is your dog a little bit too excited when you get home from work? Try to stop him with your bubble before he even gets to you. Remember – as soon as the dog slows down and yields to the pressure, release it (back off)! If he has already invaded your bubble, confidently walk right through him. Push him away with your bubble and your body. Be persistent – if your dog has been practicing this inappropriate behavior for a long time, it may take a while for him to get the message. Every time he invades your bubble without your permission, respond consistently – push him out of it – with your bubble and body, not your hands. Only invite him back in when he is calm and respectful of your space.
You can also use Social Pressure (or rather, Social Release in this instance) to invite a timid dog close to you. Your bubble is “widest” and “strongest” if you are facing the dog straight on. Turn your side to the dog, and squat low. This will make your bubble smaller (releasing pressure) and communicate to the dog that you are giving him permission to approach if he chooses. DO NOT invade his bubble – carefully pay attention to the distance in which he is the least uncomfortable. If you shrink your bubble, and give him the space he is requesting, he may very well choose to come closer to you.
Social Pressure can be used to enforce boundaries and thresholds – for instance, not allowing your dog in the kitchen while you are cooking. Use your bubble and its Social Pressure to push your dog back across the threshold. Think of it kind of like soccer – “dribble” your dog back across the threshold, being ready to block him if he tries to slip past you. Repeat every time he tries to cross. As soon as he begins to yield to your social pressure, back off and release it! Remember, it’s about pressure and release – as soon as you see signs of your dog yielding to the social pressure, release it!
**I do not recommend using social pressure with a dog who has a known bite history, or a dog that appears to have aggressive intentions. Consult a professional before attempting to use Social Pressure.